From conversations about gender-neutral bathrooms to votes on marriage equality, ‘gender’ has been quite the buzzword (if you doubt this, step foot on a college campus). The cultural evolution of gender expression has left Christians at a challenging intersection. How do we respond? What does it look like to engage in conversation well around issues that are as personal as one’s own sexuality?
I have spent the last few years studying at a state university, one that runs the third oldest LGBT Center in the nation. Because of the influence of the LGBT center on our campus, sexuality & gender were often topics of conversation in our grad office. Once I made the comment that God doesn’t have a gender. It turned some heads and produced an interesting conversation; one that I have been thinking on for a bit now. When I saw that this month’s theme was on gender & missional living I thought this was the perfect opportunity to open up this conversation…
We often view our biological distinctions (male/female) as mutually exclusive expressions of identity. We have even created Christian subcultures where our spiritual identity is centered on distinguishing our sexuality (such as biblical manhood and womanhood). The problem with this definition of our sexuality is that it is still centered on us (how ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ one can be) in an attempt to be countercultural to the world’s definition of gendered living and gender roles. Both these responses remove God as the center of our sexuality. God is the fullness of our gendered existence. To understand this clearly, I feel it’s important to have a shared definition of sex vs. gender. For this post, I’ll be using these working definitions:
Sex, put simply, is ones biological make-up (Male/Female).
Gender is the embodiment of our sexuality. This umbrella includes much more than just our organs and body. It is the way we identify with our sexuality. This identification can come through emotions, preferences and characteristics. Most often, it is how one qualifies ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’.
Often, Christians get hung up on gender— how does one’s expression of their gender line up with their biological sex? And what should gender expression look like? But we have gone about answering this question incorrectly, or at least, not fully. We should be talking less about gender in relationship to what one does. Instead, we should be asking what does it mean?
One of the ways we can understand the meaning of God is through our sex. God, himself, is neither exclusively male nor female; rather the fullness of his image is expressed in the creation (and relationship) of the two. When God created female and male (Gen. 1:27), He also imparted a piece of his character. It is what it means to be Imago Dei (the image of God).
But often, when we talk about Imago Dei we focus on one aspect of our being (maybe its race, sex or gifting). It is the totality of our being, however that tells us about God’s character. It is the way our body, mind, soul and spirit works together that produces the ongoing revelation of who God is. When we fail to look at our own identity holistically, we get an incomplete picture. This in turn produces an incomplete understanding of God. N.T. Wright describes Imago Dei this way:
The picture I often use to help people understand what Genesis means by the image of God is the image of an angled mirror. The point about [an] angled mirror is that you can see in both directions.
When we ask ‘what is the meaning of gender?,’ it becomes the angled mirror through which we can know the character of God. This mirror recenters our gender expression and sexuality from being a response to the values of the world to a new way of affirming sexuality that is centered on God.
A Broken Image
In my last post I wrote about the way sin affects our identity with one another. Brokenness has left us grasping to define our identity in attempt to feel whole. I want to extend this thought and talk about another part of the damage of that is passed on through sin and how that is experienced through our gender.
We’ve perverted our gender by over-sexualizing our ideas, images and bodies. We’ve created a culture that glorifies the sexual being, making its meaning centric to the way we extend and understand identity. The idea of being ‘sexy’ has become a currency in which we exchange our gender identity for power. Even within Christians cultures, gendered roles around masculinity and femininity have become centric to the way we are told we can know, understand and be used by God.
We no longer see clearly what it means that gender and sexuality is a reflection of the image of God. Our sexuality is made to compliment each other, not used as power over one another. Sex and gender are designed to show us a deeper meaning of relationship, one that reflects the way the fullness of relationship found in the Trinity.
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul is calling the church not just to a set of moral distinctions, but to become a community where sexual and material consumerism is rejected. This rejection rests the value of one’s identity from sexuality or gender, redirecting it to a corporate context where sexuality is affirmed as sacred and a means to know Christ. It is the relationship of believers with one another that allows them to move away from the world’s view of sexuality as commodity.
As one expresses their sexuality through gender, we see the relationship of male and female pointing us to pieces of God’s identity. Some of these qualities are emotive (joy, love, anger, jealousy). Others are descriptive of God’s character– strength, kindness, courage, and compassion. These qualities are experienced and embodied in the relationship of our sexes.
In returning to our question “what does gender mean?,” the reflection of God in our gender allows us to re-center our identity. The world’s response to an inadequate definition of gender has become expression through a third, fourth or fifth way (LGBT). My friends in the LGBT community have expressed to me that the binary system of sexuality doesn’t match what they feel. They have found another way.
When it comes to sexuality and gender, Christianity has done poorly at producing ‘another way’ of understanding God that isn’t centered on masculinity and femininity. But this is what the Kingdom of God brings to us! Jesus’ kingdom brings in a way of defining ourselves as more than our sexuality. In John 4, we see Jesus do this with the woman at the well. She is a woman who has had 5 husbands and is immoral. This has become her identity, dictating her life. Jesus redirects her identity to who she is in God. He redefines her based on what she believes about the Messiah, rather than her sexual identity and past.
When we view our gender identity in light of Christ, we are no longer bound to the world’s mandate that our value centers on our sexuality (gender, singleness, marriage, orientation). Instead, we are able to re-imagine ourselves in a kingdom-centered relationship as God intended.
In this new community, the world’s values do not hold. Instead, one’s identity and sexuality is affirmed in relationship to Christ ultimately pointing us to a better, future kingdom.