To even the most casual observer the western world is in a flux when it comes to understanding gender and no-one seems to have a clear idea about what this present time means or where we are heading into the future. And if you look to the church for clarity you’ll come away disappointed.
The fact that confusion is everywhere is both surprising and completely to be expected. Christians of nearly all theological persuasions would say that if you leave the Biblical pattern for life (whatever you think that to be) then the result will be disorder and chaos. The more orthodox among them look into the world and see exactly that.
They see nothing but confusion when someone claims to have given birth as both genders when it is seemingly self-evident that only one sex can ever give birth – the female sex. And wonder how people can take seriously the statement ‘that there’s not a lot of information out there about this’. When all the evidence suggests that there’s an awful lot of information out there on pregnancy – just all aimed at those that actually give birth, you know – women. Confusion and chaos reigns.
That the progressive world finds itself somewhat more confused by its present situation is a bit surprising to all those concerned. Having decisively won all cultural battles in the West over the past 70 years, the present and the future should be relatively clear. Except it isn’t.
No mainstream media outlet is advocating for a return to the moral or legal positions of the 1990s let alone the 1950s. We aren’t even likely to return to the sitcoms of the 1990s seeing as they’re probably ‘transphobic, homophobic and sexist’ (we’re talking about Friends, that cultural beacon of traditional morality). When it comes to shaping culture the orthodox have almost no allies at all.
Gender equality is a policy goal of most Western democracies. Gay marriage is in, and we’ve moved from homophobia to transphobia being the sin of the day (witness the shrill outcry when world champion racing driver Lewis Hamilton suggested that boys shouldn’t wear dresses). But not everything is falling into place as they should think. Beneath the legislative victories, there’s something rotten in the sate of Denmark (that’s probably literally and metaphorically true).
In a politically polarized world things are messy – knowing who the good guys are is not as straightforward as people thought. As Peter Beinart says:
Men who support a feminist political agenda, like Clinton supporter Harvey Weinstein, still assault women. Women who oppose a feminist agenda still get assaulted.
Well that’s because men are the problem, right? Right. Although not exclusively. Men are indeed the vast majority of abusers and I’ve written before about the violent beasts that men can be. Yet men are not alone in being abusive and women are not alone in being abused.
According to Scott Alexander nearly a third of victims are men and a fifth of abusers are women. His whole argument illustrates that when it comes to gender there is an agenda and a bias and it’s not what you think.
I’ve previously talked about two visions of social justice. The first vision tries to erase group differences to create a world free from stereotypes and hostility. The second vision tries to attack majority groups and spread as many stereotypes as possible about them in the hopes that the ensuing hostility raises the position of minorities. I think the gendered nature of the conversation is deliberate, being done with exactly this [second] vision
In the interests of pursuing an ‘equality agenda’ the result is not greater cohesion but greater fragmentation.
Instead, since we’ve chosen a narrative where one side can only ever be a victim and the other can only ever be perpetrators, we’ve made it impossible for anyone to see both perspectives. Self-interested men worry only about how to avoid allegations, self-interested women worry only about how to make sure all allegations are believed, and nobody worries about how to make a system where they expect fair treatment no matter which role they find themselves in.
Evidence that Alexander is right came from France. An open letter was published by women criticising the #metoo sexual abuse campaign and the subsequent outcry forced them to make the usual sort of apologies.
All this to illustrate that the western world’s great vision of equality and freedom of personal expression is developing some cracks that may be hard to plaster over. The likely result is unlikely to be social harmony but a much deeper moral malaise and splintering of the social fabric of western societies.
Things, sadly, are no better when you look at the church.
In Sweden the Lutheran Church of Sweden has included gender-neutral pronouns for God as an option. I’d say you’re being a bit naive if you thought that’s where it would stop. And indeed it’s not.
In a local notice advertising a Christmas worship service, the church described Jesus using the pronoun ‘hen’, which in Sweden is used to refer to non-binary people or in cases where a person’s gender is not known or not relevant.
“The word ‘hen’ is a way to give a new perspective,” said Susann Senter, dean at the church, in a statement after reports on the advert in Swedish media prompted both praise and criticism.
Senter acknowledged that the historical Jesus was a man, but argued that from a theological perspective, his gender was not a defining aspect of his identity.
The Christ of faith versus the Jesus of history. We’ve seen this liberal theology before.
What we see is the church wrestling and arguing over the notion of what it means to say that God created us male and female not because the Bible is unclear but because the world is unclear. This is a tragedy for the church.
For the past generation the church in the west has been caught up in the wider equality argument and the basic question centred around the roles of women in the church. This, as is typical in the church, has been a debate that still rumbles around long after everyone else has moved on. As Ian Paul laments
What saddens me is that in many Christian communities today there is no longer a place for women leaders. In most churches, gifted women are not even being recognised, let alone being encouraged and permitted to lead and speak. Some are even offended by the idea of women leaders. The church and the world are suffering because the prophetesses—women with God-given spiritual authority—are being silenced and sidelined.
But while some parts of the Christian church are still debating gender roles, or the right or wrongness of homosexuality – the liberal shapers of culture have moved on. And those who had argued for equality of genders then argued for an equality of sexuality. Once they’d achieved that goal they are now arguing for a removal of gender distinctions. This, I predict, will prove to be very uncomfortable ground for Christians who had previously followed the arc of justice to the right side of history.
There will be many who see that they cannot on Biblical grounds argue for a removal of gender. They will find agreeing with the Swedish Bishop of Västerås, Mikael Mogren very difficult when he says
Trans people are created by God, your bodies belong to the beautiful and extraordinary creation of God.
Of course they were created by God but they were not created trans. They were created male or female and they didn’t like that. That’s why they’re trans. I suspect for many this notion that our bodies are malleable a step too far. Instead they’ll agree with people like Todd Wilson when he says,
Each of us is created either male or female. This may seem so obvious that it’s not worth stating, but given the challenges we face, it does need to be pointed out. It’s the clearest thing we can say about being created in the image of God. All of us are either one or the other. The tragic developmental anomaly of intersex notwithstanding, there really is no third option; there is just this basic dual reality.
That’s not to say that gender dysphoria isn’t real. It is and its consequences can be tragic. But it is also poorly understood (research suggests a connection with autism that needs exploring) and yet legislation and cultural sensibilities are moving way ahead of the science.
But to stand on this idea will likely carry them to a place they thought they had left. As Wilson shows that if there is a created complementarity between male and female then this has an inherent logic that we should follow.
To be created in the image of God as male and female means that each of us is either male or female. We are called to embrace who God has made us to be, whether male or female. We must be faithful to our calling as male or female and must own who we are sexually as one of God’s greatest gifts to us—for the good of others.
It likely also then follows as Alistair Roberts argues, that there may be for ‘modern’ Christians some uncomfortable questions to be asked and answered as we explore what it means to be made male and female.
If ‘equality’, in the modern sense of that term, were really God’s great concern, why did he create men so much stronger than women in a world that demanded and rewarded physical strength? Why did he create women to bear such a disproportionate burden of the weight of the task of procreation? If ‘equality’ were God’s purpose, why are sexual differences so pronounced when it comes to the core tasks of the human vocation: being fruitful, multiplying, filling the earth, subduing it, and exercising dominion?
This is not to say that we need to all go back to 1950s stereotypes of housewives and misogynistic men, yet as Jen Oshman says women don’t need to try to outdo men in order to be seen as strong.
My peers and I grew up in the Title IX generation, hearing from our teachers and role models that anything the boys could do we could do better. We were applauded when we went out for the football team. We were considered accomplished when we got our degrees and set out for corporate America. But if we got married, if we “wasted” our degrees and became moms, and if we now choose to stay home and nurture our kids and husbands and neighbors and communities we are considered a lost opportunity.
The orthodox have been losing the cultural narrative for decades and they have no power levers to pull to change it. Yet I see in this moment an opportunity for a stand – on the notion of being made male and female that will provide a solid basis to argue for a more compelling vision of personal identity, for families and for society as a whole.