Thanks for your question. I appreciate the sensitivity of this question, and I hope that what you read below both stirs your mind and comforts your heart. I think this topic is getting bigger and bigger in our cultural moment, and so most of what I’ve written below serves to step back from the conversation to hear again from the Scriptures. Please know that I’ve tried to share what I think is the best wrestling with the Scriptures - both seeking to follow what they command without adding to them . So, without further ado…
Given that the term Post-structuralism is in my bio, I should probably explain myself! Post-structuralism is an area of thought which, like postmodernism, defines itself in terms of what it is against. Structuralism says that we can study culture by looking at underlying structures. So, poststructuralism says that even those underlying structures aren’t neutral, and themselves should be studied. The basic idea is that whatever topic we are looking at - in this case, gender - is part of a larger structure of thinking and context which itself needs to be thought about, queered, and deconstructed. The key feminist philosopher within this stream is Judith Butler , whose seminal book Gender Trouble has become a key text with which all students in the humanities wrestle when discussing topics of gender.
I thought it might be helpful to recommend some resources before I pretend to have a perfect response to your question. Three books I have found helpful are the following:
- Elaine Storkey - Created or Constructed: The Great Gender Debate
- Andrew T. Walker - God and the Transgender Debate
- Mark Yarhouse - Understanding Gender Dysphoria
I’m just finishing Andrew Walker’s book now, and would highly recommend chapters five and six which seek to unpack Genesis 1-3 in order to understand the creation of male and female and how the text speaks into the gender/sex distinction we work with in our contemporary setting.
To begin with, I think it’s necessary to say that the litmus test for the Christian knowing whether they are living out the life God intends for them is not whether they are becoming more male or female, but more like Jesus. The thing which was hammered into me growing up in the faith were these words: God’s priority is your character, not your calling; prioritise your character, and you can sustain any calling. I think this has import for how we think about sex/gender. God’s role for our lives will always be, first and foremost, becoming more like his Son. This doesn’t dismiss the gender discussion, it just relativises it. In a world which is perpetually discussing gender and increasingly angry/anxious about opinions, the Christian is given the invitation to find first our humanity as image-bearers of God following Jesus.
- Mapping Out the Terms of the Discussion
It’s important to recognise that the Bible doesn’t make a distinction between gender and sex. The reason for this is the same as why Plato, or Luther, or John Locke, or any other writer before the 1900s wouldn’t have made that distinction: because it’s a new distinction. The distinction arose in the 1900’s from within the social sciences. Particularly toward the middle-end of the 20th century, feminist thought underwent three waves, ending with the poststructural though of Judith Butler. I’ll briefly discuss those waves below (keep in mind, that discussing them doesn’t mean I endorse them!).
Pre-Modern ideas of gender maintained that gender was determined by biology. This has come to be known as “essentialism.” The problem with it is that it reduces the complexity of human relationships to biology, which fails to explain how differences in masculinity and femininity could arise and how culture influences the way we relate one another.
Modern ideas of gender evolved to say that biological sex is created whereas gender is culturally constructed. This happened around the time of the sexual revolution: liberation of women, suffrage movement, contraception, etc. This was good, because it afforded women access to parts of life which would have otherwise remained out of reach: voting, working, etc. The problem with it, is that it actually relies upon biological essentialism by saying that the greatest good a women can be afforded is the goods already afforded to men. It fails to make sense of the good type of difference between men and women.
Postmodern ideas of gender completely deconstructed gender altogether. This wave of thought argued that even biology is seen through a lens which is cultural constructed. If true, not only is gender culturally constructed, but so too is biology - because we never think about biology without already having made conclusions about it. The problem with this is manifold, but let me point out two. First, it wrongly suggests that human thinking is perpetually stuck in relativism - like a rat on a hamster wheel: we can’t escape and we’re going nowhere. Second, it completely dissolves categories that Christians think are meaningful; most particularly, sex and gender!
So, here’s the question: Does the Bible ask us to think of gender as biologically determined by sex (pre-modern and modern), or culturally constructed in such a way that, to be free from all the pain this discussion has caused, we should get rid of the categories of sex and gender altogether?
- What the Scriptures Actually Say
The poetry of Genesis 1 describes pairs that work together: heaven and earth, sea and land, male and female, and finally God and humanity. God’s design is such that four things are always present in the pairs: difference, sameness, complementarity, and union. This climaxes in the Genesis narrative when, in chapter 2 (verse 24), male and female are united together to become one flesh. Notice the ingredients:
- Difference: without difference, there’d be nothing to behold
- Sameness: without sameness, there’d be no means by which to behold
- Complementarity: without complementarity, the larger scope of God’s mission (the cultural mandate) wouldn’t be accomplished
- Union: union is the climax of male/female relationships, as an image for what God’s already doing with himself and humanity as well as heaven and earth
All that so say, what’s going on in Genesis 1 and 2 is much more simple than the gender debate we want to have in our current climate, but also much more profound. What we want to do is ask, “What is the content of masculinity or femininity by which I can value myself as a human?” Whereas Genesis 1 and 2 want to say, “Here is the story of God by which you are given your status as an image-bearer, and here are your options to live out that story: as a man, receive your woman; as a woman, receive your man. If you’re not attracted to the opposite sex, be single and await the day where the reality to which all heterosexual marriage points eclipses your earthly loves.”
The Bible doesn’t ignore the category of sex, so we shouldn’t dismiss it. It acknowledges that men can be united to women sexually and visa versa; that men are fathers and women are mothers; that childbirth is something women do. All of this is grounded in biology, anatomy, chromosomes, etc. Which means that male and female have unique, non-interchangeable glories (Tim Keller’s words) — they each see and do things that the other cannot.
At the same time, the Bible doesn’t exhaustively outline what it means to be a woman or a man. So, we would be wise not to hold a woman to account for things which might actually be culturally constructed. For example, I love to cook and my wife doesn’t. I love the colours, smells, and result of all the foods. I also love cleaning. Because I work with my mind, it’s actually really nice to sabbath with my hands. Because it’s too cold to do garden-work in England, I usually clean on the weekend. It’s a nice break! I’m still a man, and one for whom my wife is incredibly appreciative. We need to be careful not to fill in the difference”we read about in the created order with details particular to our cultural moment.
In short, dissolving sex and gender would be disobedient to the Bible. At the same time, adding unhelpful stereotypes to gender roles would be just as disobedient. If I were to say, “Gender doesn’t mean anything,” I’d be saying less than what the Bible says. Conversely, if I were to say, “Being a man means being strong, promiscuous, and the bread-winner,” I’d be saying more than what the Bible says. We must be careful to avoid both. We must maintain difference, sameness, complementarity, and union - all as temporary expressions of what will one day be true about the universe, that God would unite himself with us.
To get really concrete and answer your original question: it is not unbiblical to be a female who is not good with kids even though she might be good at athletics. Now, hear me fully though: it would be un-Christlike, however, to be a terrible mother because you’re spending all your time doing athletics. But, the same is true for a man: it would be incredibly un-Christlike for me, as a male, to be a terrible father because I spend all my free time running track. There’s nothing in the Bible that says you can’t be good at athletics or that you have to like pink. I would say that these are culturally constructed and unhelpful, forcing men and women to value themselves through additional criteria which God hasn’t asked us to.
- Difficult Texts
There are certain texts worth doing more research into (1 Corinthians 11, 14, Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, 1 Timothy 2, 1 Peter 3). However, I won’t do that here. There was a series published by Zondervan a few years ago, addressing these passages in minor detail. It consisted in three books, each of which addressed the passages differently, seeking to be faithful to the authority of the Sciptures. I’d recommend the books to you. They’re only 50-70 pages long each, so you can blitz through them:
1. Bird, Michael. 2012. Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
2. Dickson, John. 2014. Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons (rev. ed.). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
3. Keller, Kathy. 2012. Jesus, Justice, & Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Do engage these, I found them incredibly helpful.
All that said, Sarah, I hope you have found this helpful. I wanted it to be incredibly clear that you know that you’re living out God’s call for your life not when you’re trying to become like the type of female that we might culturally construct, but when you’re aiming at becoming more like Jesus. Part of that means grounding gender in biology, such that we’d never say a man can be a woman or visa versa. At the same time, it means acknowledging that the Bible doesn’t exhaustively tell us what it looks like to be a male or a female.
Blessings to you,