Male and female he created them?

Our resident theologian David Instone-Brewer explores what the Bible has to say on gender and transgender issues.

She was a shy 12-year-old, like me. When she kissed me before jumping on a bus, I fell in love a little; in a hopelessly confused sort of way. But we were both to be further confused a week later when she reported what her hospital tests had revealed.

She had been diagnosed with a severe intersex state. She had ovaries as well as internal testes: ‘she’ was both male and female.  

More than one in 2,000 babies need a specialist to determine their gender, and twice as many have surgery to ‘normalise’ them. Increasingly, surgery is discouraged at a young age so that individuals have the chance to establish their own gender identity later in life. Others, like my friend, have intersex problems that only reveal themselves at puberty. Understandably, few people with these conditions talk about it, so the difficulties they face remain hidden.  

A DUAL MESSAGE

The Bible contains a curious double message on sexuality: it emphasises the distinction between male and female, but de-emphasises the differences. The Law of Moses outlawed a man wearing female clothing and vice versa (Deuteronomy 22:5). Since both sexes wore long robes, this wasn’t for modesty reasons, but to ensure that everyone knew the wearer’s gender.

However, the Israelites did not treat women as differently as we might expect. Women could work outside the home, as shepherds, for example, like the women Moses and Jacob married (Genesis 29:9; Exodus 2:16). And although there were no female priests, the divorced and widowed daughters of priests ate temple food that was forbidden to lay people (Leviticus 22:13), so they were not perceived to be lacking in holiness.  

The absence of difference between Adam and Eve is startling. By saying that Eve was made from Adam himself (Genesis 2:21), the creation account emphasises that they were exactly the same. She was an ‘identical’ twin, but female.

Genesis honours Eve very highly. In describing her relationship with Adam, the King James translation calls Eve a ‘help meet for him’ (Genesis 2:18). In modern English, this makes her sound like a domestic servant, but the words ‘meet for him’ translate from the Hebrew word kenegdo: a combined meaning of ‘like’ and ‘beside’ and ‘him’. So she is, in fact, very similar to Adam.  

The surprise lies in the word ‘help’ (Hebrew ezer), because the Bible always uses this word for someone who is more powerful; often a warrior or for God himself (Psalm 115:9-11). So, in contrast to what we might assume, Eve is more like Lara Croft than a Stepford wife.  

ADDRESSING INTERSEX CONDITIONS

How does someone with an intersex condition feel about these gender differences? The most serious, and common, is Klinefelter’s syndrome where, instead of having a male XY chromosome or a female XX, the person has XXY. Others have normal chromosomes but poorly developed genitals, often caused by the wrong  hormones being present in the womb at a critical stage. Studies with rats have found that even short bursts of such hormones during pregnancy can result in normal genitals accompanied by transgender behaviour.   

"FAR FROM BEING BLACK AND WHITE ON SEXUALITY, THE BIBLE IS SYMPATHETIC "

LEAD THE LIFE ASSIGNED TO YOU  

What are the primary biblical messages to hold in mind as we explore these issues? First and foremost, God loves us as we are. The demands of society may force us to conform in all kinds of ways – in clothing, manners, food and sexual stereotypes – but we shouldn’t blame God for this.  

Paul is sometimes regarded as heavy-handed about conformity because he didn’t want Christians to unnecessarily offend anyone with the wrong food or wrong headwear (1 Corinthians 8:9-13; 11:13-16). But he recognised that people have different experiences of sexuality. Paul himself preferred singleness and encouraged it, but he also accepted that marriage was good and, in fact, preferable for some who might fall into sexual immorality without it (1 Corinthians 7:8-9), although unfortunately he couldn’t bring himself to admit any other positives. He sums this up with  the principle: ‘Let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him’ (v17, ESV).  

Even in Paul’s forceful anti-homosexual teaching, he still held to this principle. He criticised those who engaged in homosexual behaviour because they ‘exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature’ (Romans 1:26, ESV). The word ‘exchanged’ implies that their original nature was heterosexual.  

He doesn’t merely mean that they should have been heterosexual, because he later states that they already actively were heterosexual before they decided to try something different: ‘the  men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another’ (v27, ESV). In other words, the grossness of their sin lay in the way they acted contrary to their own nature; contrary to the life the Lord had assigned to them.  

CONFORMITY ISN’T CALLED FOR  

Those born as intersex can take comfort in the recognition that the Bible doesn’t demand that they conform. They may have been brought up as the ‘wrong’ gender, because gender identity and body shape don’t always match the chromosomes. Paul doesn’t criticise this kind of person; he criticises those who deliberately try something different simply to stimulate their jaded sexual appetites.  

Examples include the Emperor Tiberius, who trained boys to arouse him underwater while he swam, and Nero, who married a male slave dressed as a bride and consummated it publicly. There are similar records of homoerotic behaviour for almost every early emperor and hedonistic homosexuality was rampant in Roman society. Paul was rightly outraged by this kind of practice, which was contrary to ‘nature’; to the way they were born.  

Western societies have only recently woken up to the complexities of human sexuality, and the Bible is usually blamed for this late willingness to engage with the issue. It is true that the Bible makes clear distinctions between male and female, but it also affirms that each should ‘lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him’. Far from being black and white on sexuality, the Bible is sympathetic. God made us as we are and loves us. The challenge for many of us is to agree with him and do the same.

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