How should we respond to people whose experience of their gender doesn’t fit with their biological sex? Or who have taken measures to change it? Or whose biological sex is unclear? What does love look like in this context?
These are questions which confront the church leader now. For some time now, it has been increasingly clear that every congregation in this nation, and every engaged Christian, will be forced to declare itself openly on a host of issues related to biology, sexuality, and gender, whether it is homosexuality, LGBT issues, or specifically transgenderism and the intersex. That this moment of decision and public declaration will come to every Christian believer, individually, should be clear by now. For me, the issue is a binary. A Christian (or a church) will recognize transgenderism (or same-sex relationships, etc.), or they will not. In other words, a congregation will teach on the sinfulness of same-sex acts or it will affirm same-sex behaviors as morally acceptable. Ministers will perform same-sex ceremonies, or they will not.
But what of the ambiguity surrounding the issue of transgenderism, especially the intersex? So often, when as a minister I bring up a conservative approach to the issue of transgenderism, I am often asked, “Well, what of the intersex condition”? The intersex condition is the unusual condition of being intermediate between male and female. It is what was once called hermaphroditism.
It is important to note that the occurrence of intersex developmental abnormalities in the human population, even when intersex is defined as broadly as possible, is 1.7%. Also important to note is that there are no recorded cases of true hermaphroditism in which both types of gonadal tissue are functional in a human being; meaning, in the end, for those true hermaphrodites who have varying degrees of karyotypic mosaicism (i.e. true genital ambiguity), I think it reasonable to glean the best genetic information we can and then assign the child’s sexual identity based on external appearance and the reasonable functional expectations of the child’s anatomy at as early an age as possible. This would of course be done in conversation with the family, patient, counselors, ministers, etc. That would involve scientific, clinical, ethical, and pastoral approaches.
But what of the pastoral and exegetical approaches? Can we say anything from Scripture regarding “atypical” bodies?
One avenue would be to consider Matt 19:1-12 and an intriguing discussion of “atypical” bodies in Scripture. As the Pharisees seek to trap Jesus, he makes two crucial points relevant to this discussion:
- Verse 4: “Have you not read that from the beginning he made them male and female?” The male/female binary and marriage seem to be part of God’s good creation.
- Verse 12: “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (the eunuchs were male, but Jesus seems to indicate that some people can lack appropriate genitals at birth).
In this passage, the disciples interpret the saying of Jesus as a prohibition of divorce. Their argument is that if one cannot get a divorce, then it is better not to enter marriage agreements at all. Although their response was not well thought out, it shows that they rightly understood what Jesus was saying. They realized that the Lord was declaring that marriage is a lifetime commitment that can legitimately be broken only by death or adultery, and that even adultery does not require divorce. The idea of “for better or worse” was more than they could accept. Better, they thought, not to marry at all.
Jesus responds with a parable about eunuchs. Eunuchs are males without testicles—that is, without that part of the male anatomy that symbolized male honor. To be a eunuch meant to be without honor. Eunuchs born that way cast aspersions on the honor of the father and his family as well as on the virginity status of the mother at her marriage (a common understanding at the time).
Eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men were either slaves or persons publicly humiliated with castration. In both cases these were males who simply could not have honor or be considered honorable, permanently marginal males who bore the social map of honor and shame on their bodies.
The third type of eunuch, as Jesus morally reflected on the physical state of the previous eunuchs, is the one who makes himself a eunuch as God’s client, to enjoy God’s favor, to please God the Patron (that is, to take part “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”).
Where does this leave us?
God made us male and female. But some people do not quite fit the categories—and were born that way. We need a culturally robust yet pastorally sensitive response to transgender (those whose experience of gender is different from their biological sex) and intersex (those whose biological sex is ambiguous) people, involving both of these insights.
But when it comes to what love looks like, the cultural conversation seems to present only two options: (1) affirm that givenness of male and female, and insist everyone fits neatly into one category; OR (2) deny the givenness of male and female, make a giant spectrum, and prioritize feelings over bodies.
Both options (1) and (2) and problematic. Jesus seems to present a different way, a third way if you will: (3) affirm emphatically that God made us male and female, that creation is good, that biological sex is good; and affirm emphatically that there are also eunuchs in the world—exceptions, whether from birth, disfigurement or self-inflicted changes—and that it is possible to be a eunuch “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”
Where the discussion will need to be furthered is where living as intersex would lead “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Perhaps it would mean embracing a celibate lifestyle? Perhaps it would mean eschewing the ambiguity and letting genetic karyotyping and medical intervention help one choose the most logical gendered identity? Or perhaps it would involve other things not thought of here? Thus, the invitation to the conversation.
It is good to be reminded in the midst of such a conversation that we all live with a dissonance between what we are and what we feel ourselves to be. Something can be true of us objectively, but we may feel it isn’t—and we need to keep hearing God say to us, “This is who you are.” The beauty of the gospel is that it is the word and work of Christ that define us, not our feelings or experiences. And we long for the day when the dissonance will disappear altogether.
Matthew Dowling is a former biologist turned preaching minister who is broadly interested in systematic theology, particularly theology proper, Protestant Scholasticism, confessional Protestantism, the English and New England Puritans, and the work of Stephen Charnock. He is the preaching minister at the Plymouth Church of Christ in Plymouth, Michigan. He blogs at www.matthewdowling.org.