A Theology of Gender
Dr. James Emery White
- 2021 May 03
Editor’s Note: This blog is the first installment of a three-blog series adapted from James Emery White’s latest weekend series, “Gender.”
The ontology of sex. It’s one of the most important conversations our culture is currently engaging, as in, “What makes someone male or female?”
Biological science would say that much of the nature of our sexual identities as male and female has to do with reproduction.
Yes, there are rare cases of someone being born “intersex,” meaning when a person is born with one or more atypical features in their sexual anatomy or sex chromosomes. The medical term for intersex conditions is “differences or disorders of sex development” or DSD. People with an intersex condition are statistically a small percentage of the population. But even within the small percentage who fall into this category, 99.98% are still biologically male or female and the other .02% are anatomically both. In other words – and this is what is important – intersex does not mean neither male nor female.
Males and females also have different levels of hormones that contribute to their given sex. For example, females have higher levels of estrogen and males have higher levels of testosterone. This is what leads to the development of various secondary sex characteristics, such as the development of breasts and wider hips in females and more muscle mass and facial hair in males.
Our sex is also formed on the genetic level. Specifically, the presence of a Y chromosome is what distinguishes males from females. That we are sexually dimorphic – biologically male or biologically female – is simply an established, objective, scientific fact. Male and female are categories of biological sex. We are, biologically, a race of men and a race of women. Biologically, there is no “in between” and there is no third option. Our interpretations of sex and the way we view our sexed bodies may be socially constructed or personally informed, but sex itself is not socially constructed.
Which brings us to all things gender. It used to be that sex and gender were synonymous—sex was gender and gender was sex.
The going idea is that gender is separated from sex and has to do with the psychological, social and cultural aspects of being male or female. And you can break that definition down into two very different categories: gender roles and gender identity.
Gender roles describe the social and cultural aspects of being male or female—in other words, all things related to masculinity and femininity. This is largely built around stereotypes. Girls like pink, boys like blue… that kind of thing. But if a girl likes blue, and a boy likes pink, it has nothing whatsoever to do with whether they are, in fact, a female or a male.
But then there is gender identity. Gender identity has to with the psychological aspects associated with being male or female—someone’s internal sense of self as male, female, both or neither.
Which brings us to the transgender issue.
The word “transgender” has become something of an umbrella term for the various ways some people experience incongruence between their biological sex and their gender—either gender role or gender identity. And from that incongruence has come the idea that people should feel free to choose their gender, despite their biological sex, based on how they feelabout their biological sex.
The heart of the transgender argument is that sex and gender are two different things. Sex has biological overtones, but gender does not—it’s cultural. And that suggests that gender is distinct from the nature of sexuality. So sex becomes the role we take on as opposed to the nature of our being. We can disregard the biology or change it as we feel fit.
So what is the central question? As Preston Sprinkle suggests in his book Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church and What the Bible Has to Say (to which I am indebted to throughout this blog), the central question is: If someone experiences incongruence between their biological sex and their internal sense of self, which one determines who they are and why?
Science would say biology, culture would say gender and personal choice.
And the Bible? If you’re looking for the word “trans” to show up in any of its verses, you’ll be disappointed. But it does speak to the issues we’re facing and the questions we’re asking.
The first thing the Bible has to say about human sexuality is that there is human sexuality. It’s real. It’s hard-wired into our very creation and, as a result, our identity (see Genesis 1:26-27). In the grand Creation narrative that starts off the entire biblical drama, we find three amazing statements about who we are as human beings: We were made, in the image of God, as men and women. When God created human beings, He deliberately made us a race of men and a race of women. Which means that sexuality isn’t just about what you do or how you feel, it is about who you are and who you were made and meant to be. It’s not just about what a person does, but who a person is.
Being male and female is inextricably intertwined with being made in the image of God. Being made in the image of God means that we have the ability to respond to and relate with the living God. We have a soul. And our body is essential to that image-bearing status. It’s all one thing. We were made in the image of God and embodied as men and women with a soul. So, the most fundamental statement about human nature – that we bear God’s image – highlights our embodied nature. We bear God’s image as male and female.
And being created male and female describes biological sex, not gender roles or gender identities. Right after saying we were created male and female, we read a very biological statement: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number’” (Genesis 1:28, NIV).
This is why whenever a man presents himself as a woman, or a woman presents herself as a man, it is unequivocally denounced. For example, in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, it says: “A woman must not put on men’s clothing, and a man must not wear women’s clothing. Anyone who does this is detestable in the sight of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 22:5, NLT). The reason it’s condemned is because it violates the created order and the image of God being embodied through our biological sex.
This is also the tension between the Bible and homoerotic behavior: “Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin... [who] commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality... none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God” (I Corinthians 6:9-10, NLT). Notice that male prostitution is separated from homosexual behavior. The Greek word Paul used for a male prostitute primarily refers to men who act like or identify as women. The reason for that denunciation was because it went against the creative intent of God making us males and females. At every turn, pursuing a trans lifestyle is condemned because it reflects turning “against the natural way” (see Romans 1:26).
So here’s the essence of the biblical teaching: 1) We are created male and female as part of God’s plan and intent; 2) Being male and female is rooted in biology—it is not something plastic, on a spectrum, to be determined by us, or based on gender identity or gender role; 3) We are a race of males and females, and that is rooted in how we were made; and 4) To violate that – to dishonor that – is a great and grievous offense to our creation and our Creator.
This is the foundation upon which we must engage current cultural conversations and debates. And make no mistake, there is a great divide between biblical teaching and current cultural dispositions. Dispositions which Colin Wright, an evolutionary biologist at Penn State, and Emma Hilton, a developmental biologist at the University of Manchester, call in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, “The Dangerous Denial of Sex.” Their position can be summed up in a sentence: “Increasingly we see a dangerous and antiscientific trend toward the outright denial of biological sex.” They write that in current cultural thinking,
“If male and female are merely arbitrary groupings, it follows that everyone, regardless of genetics or anatomy should be free to choose to identify as male or female, or to reject sex entirely in favor of a new bespoke ‘gender identity.’”
And their response to that as scientists?
“In humans, as in most animals or plants, an organism’s biological sex corresponds to one of two distinct types of reproductive anatomy.... In humans, reproductive anatomy is unambiguously male or female at birth more than 99.98% of the time.... No third type of sex cell exists in humans, and therefore there is no sex ‘spectrum’ or additional sexes beyond male and female. Sex is binary.”
All to say, in a healthy psychology, gender and sex are not something simply between our ears, but between our legs. Sexuality is not like a favorite color,
… it is hardwired into our being and was meant to be.
James Emery White
Preston Sprinkle, Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church and What the Bible Has to Say.
Colin M. Wright and Emma N. Hilton, “The Dangerous Denial of Sex,” The Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2020, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president.
His latest book, After “I Believe,” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast.
Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.