Monday, January 14, 2019

Gender Identity in a Culture of Autonomy

The desire to define oneself is strong in modern culture. Tradition, the created order, and authority (divine or human) are seen as dehumanizing assaults on the freedom of the individual. In this struggle for radical autonomy, the area of sexuality has been front and center. Earlier, I wrote about how this struggle defines the current debate about the bounds of sexual intimacy. Another aspect of this struggle has been the issue of masculinity and femininity - does the individual have the right to choose and create his or her gender, or are we responsible to embrace the gender we have been given? On this issue, God takes a clear position in His word.
"So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them."
(Genesis 1:27) 
“A woman shall not wear a man's garment, nor shall a man put on a woman's cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God."
(Deuteronomy 22:5) 
Here we see that our identity as male or female is rooted in creation and that it is an abomination to rebel against this order. It is not a personal choice. For a man to put on a woman's cloak is to identify as a woman, and this is forbidden. Gender is determined, not by personal choice, but by biological sex, which is clear for the vast majority of people. Notice, in these verses there is both the fact of gender - you are male or female regardless of how you choose to present yourself - and the duty to then embrace this identity and live it out. Someone who is male by birth also has a duty to be a man.

The law in Deuteronomy is a case law. That is, it expresses a principle by using a particular case. Masculinity and femininity involve more than clothing. Clothing is a symbol of a larger identity. Some of the symbols that identify us as masculine or feminine are rooted in the created order and do not change from culture to culture (for example, beards are masculine not feminine). Some symbols, though, may be culturally relative - yet this does not mean we get to ignore them. Language, for example, is culturally relative, but this doesn't give us free rein to use it however we want. The English word "woman" only means "woman" because that is how English-speaking people use the term, but this doesn't give someone a right to use the word to mean "man." Culturally relative symbols with a longer history (like words) will be less flexible than symbols of recent creation. Distinctive clothing, of which Deuteronomy 22:5 speaks, is usually partially based on creational differences (such as body shape) and partially based on cultural language (such as pink and blue baby colors).

Masculinity and femininity go deeper than the symbols. A man who wears manly clothes but fails to provide for his household or proves to be a coward when faced with difficulty and danger is not manly, despite his clothing. A woman who dresses in a feminine manner but seeks to rule or disrespect her husband or church is not feminine, despite her appearance. While men and women were both created in the image of God, they were created differently with different bodies, different abilities, and different responsibilities (Gen. 2-3, 1 Cor. 11:7-9, 1 Tim. 2:11-15, 1 Pet. 3:7), and we are called to live accordingly.

The desire to define oneself apart from God's created order is not new. The people of God has lived among sexually rebellious peoples for its entire history and has been in an ongoing struggle to be distinct from this rebellion. For example, the early church drew a strong line between the practice of Christians and that of a sexually perverted Greco-Roman society. Clement of Alexandria, a church father of the 2nd century, strongly condemned not only sexual sins, but also effeminate men who sought to appear smooth and feminine by plucking out beards and wearing jewry and soft clothing. "Luxury has deranged all things; it has disgraced man ... Men play the part of women, and women that of men, contrary to nature ... O miserable spectacle! horrible conduct!" (The Instructor, 3.3).

Clement, as well as many others, recognized a connection between this effeminacy and sexual immorality, particularly homosexuality. It is effeminate for a man to have sexual relations with a man - he is acting like a woman. It is a feminine thing to have sexual relations with a man. As Romans 1:26-27 teaches, natural sexual relations involve a man and a woman - perversions of this are shameful and a rebellion against the natural order. So a man who seeks sexual intimacy with a man not only commits sexual immorality, but he also violates the principle of Deuteronomy 22:5 by acting as a woman.

In our age, the church continues to live among people who seek to blur what God has made distinct, who seek to rebel against God's created order and assert their autonomy. Not only do individuals practice sin, but egalitarian feminism, transgenderism, homosexuality, and gender autonomy are promoted and affirmed in the schools, media, entertainment, and politics. To oppose someone's right to define themselves or call them to repentance is seen as a denial of their humanity. What ought the church to do?

1. The church ought to be "a pillar and buttress of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). It ought to clearly proclaim and defend God's word in the midst of a people who despise it. Rather than retreating to more popular parts of the truth, we ought to defend it where it is under attack. This is a primary task of the church.
2. The church ought not be unequally yoked with lawless unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1). It should not tolerate within in it those who teach or promote sexual immorality or sexual confusion (Rev. 2:20). This principle also applies to Christian parachurch organizations and ministries.
3. Christians ought to live out a Christian understanding of sexuality. The church is a city on a hill, called to let the light of its good works shine before men so that they might glorify God (Matt. 5:14-16). The church's defense of the truth is not only intellectual. We also defend it by our example. There are destructive forms of masculinity and femininity out there, and Christians need to demonstrate the beauty of virtuous masculinity and femininity that accords with God's word.
4. As Christians live among unbelievers and do business with them (1 Cor. 5:9-13), they are to do good to them (Matt. 5:43-48), and to lovingly call them to repentance and faith (Luke 5:29-32), being ready to graciously defend the biblical position when they question it (Col. 4:6). We live in the same world, fellow members of civil society, yet we are commanded: "Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them" (Eph. 5:11).

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