Sunday, February 8, 2015


Speaking historically, you may remember the Wachowski Brothers of Matrix (1999) fame or Bradley Manning who stole all that Gulf War data and passed it on Wikileaks. The two Wikipedia articles about Manning and the Wachowskis highlight the issues in the lives of the individuals themselves and the difficulty in talking about the topic of gender itself. We need to think about the concept of gender, how to describe gender and then how to discuss our own and others' gender.

(It's impossible to write neutrally about the topic of gender, so I might as well be upfront about my own presuppositions. I think Aristotle is right about human identity, it's multifaceted, which means gender is only one dimension of personhood. I assume objective truth has a divine origin. Therefore I've adopted the regulative principle of worship as my hermeneutical guide, which means I assume authoritative biblical definitions of gender exist. However I also believe in the noetic effects of sin on everything and that knowledge and reality are therefore fragmented.)


It seems like a truism but gender as it is traditionally understood, with two categories; male and female is observable in all areas of human existence.
  1. Gender is a biblical idea, with Genesis 1:27 being the best proof text. Scripture also describes some of the ambiguities associated with gender, for example Matthew 19:12. 
  2. Gray in Anatomy of the Human Body 1918, uses two separate categories to describe common physiological differences in bone structure and sex organs between men and women. 
  3. There a particular psychological disorders associated with either males or females.
  4. Culturally, the division of the world into two genders is overwhelming. For example, the Olympics divides competitors into either men or women. These two categories are also common scientific categories, for example the two traditionally understood genders form the basis of this article about gender bias from Nature
  5. The historical record focuses on gender being understood as either male or female. To pick one random example: this National Geographic article about women in history references only women and men. (Interestingly "gender" as a concept has only been the focus of discussion since the 1960's.) 
  6. Finally, gender is also observable genetically. "Humans and most other mammals have two sex chromosomes, the X and the Y. Females have two X chromosomes in their cells, while males have both X and a Y chromosomes in their cells."
Describing Gender

This is what I think is happening philosophically around gender in this recent debate:
  1. New categories for physiological gender ambiguity: eg New Scientist reports that Germany will be the first nation to add a third gender. "Indeterminate" when a newborn's sex organs are ambiguous. 
  2. New categories for adopting the cultural cues of the opposite gender but without changing physiological attributes: eg The BBC reports on the 'Facebook-drag-queen-real-name row' where men wanted to adopt female characteristics online. 
  3. Wholesale gender change, taking on the physiology and cultural cues of the opposite gender. Although "Gender Transition" (Huffington Post) when people are in the midst of this change is a category all of it's own. 
  4. Deliberately subverting the cultural aspects usually associated with either maleness or femaleness. eg This recent article from the New York Times describes how the University of Vermont has recognised Rocko Gieselman as being of "neutral" gender. 
The first area is about finding words to describe the brokenness of the world, the second area relies on the traditional gender distinctions, it's only the individual that's making the change and they define themselves in contrast to the traditional gender distinctions. The third area is made tricky by the slow (and often difficult) nature of the change, which means individuals are literally in transition between their old gender and adopting the new one. The fourth category seems philosophically disingenuous because the concept of gender itself is being subverted.

Discussing ourselves and others 

Figuring out what to think and say about gender helps figure out what to say and think about sexual attraction. On the one hand fewer people are normal than we realise and on the other hand a minority of outliers are more normal than we realise. So pastorally let's remember Ephesians 4:32 "be kind to one another." This is as much about you and me as it about anyone else.

  • Respect: I think it's best to call someone how they wish to be addressed. This increases with proximity but not with power, your neighbour is more important than a celebrity. 
  • Honesty: If you're feeling safe you should find ways to express your own ideological point of view. 
  • Pronouns: Therefore I don't think it's disrespectful to write about Bradley Manning and his gender change. 
  • Paradigms: This whole debate is still in flux, if it becomes one simply of pastoral sensitivity then there is considerable hope, if it becomes one about power and less about the lives of our neighbours we're in for a Orwellian nightmare.  
  • Problems: Thinking about this topic has made me realise how little there is about the nature of gender in theological studies. (I don't think this disproves complementarianism or applying the regulative principle of worship to hermeneutics.) CBMW have made a start, but if readers know more please point me there. 
[Update, 9 Feb 2015]

A Theology of Gender

Some starting points, ordered roughly in importance.
  1. Reformed Epistemology: Scripture provides a comprehensive but not exhaustive basis for gender.
  2. Gender as an ontological category:
    1. Divinely established and morally good (Gen 1:27 & 1:31)
    2. Reflecting something of who God is "in the image of God" (Gen 1:27)
    3. Observable (Gen 2:25)
    4. Unique physical characteristics (Gen 3:16)
    5. Unique cultural (& historical) expressions (Gen 24:13)
    6. Has an existential dimension: Eg Eve "desiring her husband" (Gen 3:16) or Abraham seeking an heir (Gen 15:2)
    7. Is broken (Gen 3:21) and corrupted (Gen 3:16) by sin
  3. Pastorally:
    1. Gender is part of someone's larger identity
    2. the fuel and delight of our identity is Jesus
    3. Respect should be ordered by proximity
    4. Ideas should be shared
    5. We need to affirm a stable binary gender identity; either male or female
    6. We need to encourage relevant cultural cues to accompany being either male or female   
    7. So I think it looks like this in these situations (in each it's important to recognise gender has a historical component: first (birth gender), then (just prior to the change), now, later (future scenarios) and finally (the other side of eternity)):
      1. Suffering based on gender and identity related questions = seek Jesus & seek healing
      2. Converted in the midst of sex change = get the big picture of gender sorted out and then figure out a return to the original gender as far as that's possible
      3. Converted after a sex change = weigh up the extent of the change and the person's situation and the strength of their relationship with God before recommending staying or changing genders again. 
  4. Apologetically
    1. The brokenness of the world means
      1. It's sometimes hard to observe gender
      2. Cultural and physical cues vary considerably 
      3. There is sometimes considerable existential angst associated with gender
    2. The corruption of the world means
      1. The debate around gender is being used to further political agendas
      2. Thinking theologically about gender is controversial
    3. To winsomely and wisely communicate the gospel we need to 
      1. Know how best to describe each category of persons in a manner that is accurate and non-projarative 
      2. Figure out how those categories of people fit into Biblical theology
  5. Ethically
    1. The debate about gender is pastoral and apologetic long before it's ethical.
    2. All the old biblical ethical ideas remain unchanged
    3. Perhaps the overlooked dynamic here is the way the individual, community and God relate
Further Reading

(Courtesy of a wise friend, I've added them to my list of things to read.)