What does the Bible have to say about gender ideology? It might seem a strange question; after all, the scientific methodology for gender reassignment surgery has not even existed for a hundred years, the term ‘transgender’ can only be first traced in the 1960s, and the mass popularisation of philosophies deconstructing the idea of gender is more recent still (for a classic treatment, see Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, published in 1990).
But as Christians, we believe that the Bible is the unchanging gift of a faithful and loving God, who is Himself Alpha and Omega, who knows the end from the beginning, and who - unlike the rest of us - is never surprised by changes in society. As Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3, the Bible is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
For two millennia, the Bible has acted as God’s authoritative word, His story telling us about the history of life, the universe and everything, teaching us about who He is, who we are, how we are to live, and how He has made a way for us to be saved through the death and resurrection of His son, Jesus Christ. As something which equips us for “every good work”, we believe that it is sufficient for thinking through every moral dilemma imaginable!
That does not mean that the Bible always gives neat easy answers, and there can be a real danger in proof-texting or using Bible passages as a tool to clobber people with; Scripture is to be studied carefully, paying attention to its original context, and to its narrative. But as we seek to locate ourselves in God’s story, we learn His original intention for people, how we all have been affected by man’s sin and our fallen world, and how through Jesus, God will make all things new again.
And it is so important that we recognise that - whatever the clashes in philosophies and ideas between contemporary culture and the Bible - the story that the Bible tells is about real people. Questions about the Bible and transgender ideology are not just theoretical. They are deeply relevant to real people; they affect real people’s lives; they can even speak to the very core of how some people perceive their identity.
Or to paraphrase another passage from Paul in 1 Corinthians, “If I have the gift of Bible interpretation and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, but do not have love, I am nothing.” The story God tells us is good news; it is not simply designed to be good arguments. And when we tell it to the world, our prayer is, with the Spirit’s help, to win over people for their good and for their flourishing, not to win a battle of ideas.
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, [let us] clothe [ourselves] with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience,” (Colossians 3:12), and let us speak truth, freedom and flourishing to a world which has forgotten their real source.
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The Creator’s Design
When thinking through any question of ethics, Genesis 1 and 2 are always a reliable starting point; we know that everything God made was good. These chapters show us what God’s plan for mankind, the earth, and all of creation, originally was, uncorrupted by sin and the fall. They teach us about who He is, and about who we are as humans.
Chapter 1 is centred around God’s power and authority: He speaks, and creation comes into being. “God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3) God defines reality, naming the different things He has made: “God called the light ‘day’, and the darkness He called ‘night’.” (Genesis 1:5). This has implications for our identity too: it is ultimately God who can define whether we are male or female, rather than us.
When God creates mankind, it is His final creative act, and the pinnacle of all that He has made. Mankind is given special status, created in God’s own image, and granted authority to rule over God’s creation on His behalf, representing Him to the world (this seems to be part of what it means to bear the divine image, just as ancient kings were represented by statues around their empires).
Notably, mankind is created as a sexed species (something Jesus himself affirms when he quotes from these verses in Matthew 19). As many commentators have noted, Genesis 1 is written in such a way as to emphasise the binaries in creation: the Hebrew word for ‘separated’ occurs five times in this opening chapter alone. Light is separated from darkness. God creates the sky to separate water from water. He creates land and seas. Humanity being split into male and female is also part of God’s good world: the sexes are distinct, and both bear the image of God. In fact, there is almost the sense that the image of God would not be fully represented if humanity was all male, or all female: both sexes are needed.
In Genesis 2, we learn more about how both sexes are incomplete without the other. “The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” After none of the animals prove suitable, God creates something new: He doesn’t just create another man, but creates a woman out of the man’s side. With the woman, there is both similarity (“this is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”) and difference (“she will be called ‘woman’, for she was taken out of ‘man’”).
Man and woman are both embodied beings: the Genesis 2 account stresses the physical creation of both sexes, with man being created from the dust of the earth, and woman from man’s side; this means that the body is part of God’s good creation. This is not the worldview of the Ancient Greeks, which saw the soul as good, and the body as bad and dirty.
Men and women are sexed, embodied beings; and in God’s creation, that is a very good thing!
Labour pains — for women and the world
We recognise that in all areas of life - not just the area of gender - it feels like the world is not as it should be, and that things have gone wrong. Creation is not as God intended it to be. The Bible never tries to hide from this, but recognises that “The creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it…[it] has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Romans 8:20, 22).
When, in Genesis 3, the man and his wife eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the whole world begins to break down: the perfect relationships between humanity and God, man and wife, and humanity and the world are shattered in one long blame-game as to who is at fault, and God justly decrees that there is a cost to what the man, the woman, and the serpent have done.
Man and woman are driven out of the garden, separated from God’s presence, and both will one day die. But man and woman also receive different punishments on top of those, according to their sex. The Hebrew emphasises both similarity and difference: they will both experience issabon (translated as ‘pain’ or ‘toil’) in different ways (childbearing, and working the ground). The woman’s punishment is directly related to her biological sex:
Brokenness seeps into every aspect of creation: even the ground now begins to bring forth thorns and thistles. Our bodies - which were part of God’s good creation - will experience sickness and suffering, and disease and death. Sin and brokenness have infected every part of our existence, and that of the world around us. That means that they have also infected our very minds, and it is no surprise that for all of us (in some way or another), we experience mental distress, whether that is through anxiety, fear or distress, and that for some people, that manifests itself as distress around their gender.
What the Fall teaches us is that, being sinners, our desires do not always align with who God created us to be; whereas the world around us tells us to be true to ourself, and to follow our heart, the Bible takes a far less positive (and far more realistic) view of the human heart:
Not every desire of our heart is to be followed: instead, we are to discern what is in line with God’s good desires for us and what is not.
Biblical manhood and womanhood — some wrong turns
If Genesis 1-2 describes God’s design for humanity, and Genesis 3 explains why the world has gone wrong, what is life actually like as men and women in a world which experiences both God’s blessing and His curse? It is important to be careful as we try and interpret the Bible to answer this question: we can’t just draw simple conclusions from narrative, for instance, and we need to pay attention to the historical context, before drawing a straightforward line to our lives today.
It is fundamental that when we are working out what it looks like to be the men and women God intended us to be, we recognise that much of what the Bible has to say applies to everyone, regardless of their sex. God’s abiding desire for both men and women is to grow in holiness and to become like Jesus.
Paul addresses these verses to both his brothers and sisters; he spends the next four chapters explaining what it looks like to be a “living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” He goes into detail about using spiritual gifts, blessing our enemies, honouring the government, loving others, preparing for Jesus’ return, and bearing with one another’s consciences. Not a single command that he utters is specific to one sex or the other.
To zoom in on the differences between men and women at the expense of the similarities is to end up producing a distorted vision of what it is to be truly male and female, made in the image of God. The difference between Christian men and women is not one of character, regardless of what messages society has sent about ‘strong’ men or ‘submissive’ women.
Nor does the Bible insist on men and women conforming to gender stereotypes, which are often far more rooted in culture than they are in God’s design for us. Being a man - and one sometimes is left with this impression even within certain Christian circles - is not about enjoying beer, barbeques and ‘banter’.
Stereotypes - as will see in the next section - can occasionally be rooted in something true and good. But often they are not. And there is a difference between a stereotype about what is masculine or feminine, and an instruction to be a certain way. Too often, both within society and the church, stereotypes have been seen as expectations to which one should conform, or even as commands to obey.
This is particularly the case given the place we are currently at within society; regressive stereotypes of masculinity and femininity are now looked to as evidence that one really is a man or woman. Whereas a girl who liked football might previously have been seen as breaking through gender boundaries, or striking a blow for femininity, now, she is likely to be asked whether she really is a woman.
Big boys don’t cry, society says. But Jesus wept. Men are supposed to be strong and powerful and to fight. But Jesus told us to turn the other cheek. Men are supposed to be the breadwinners, while the women stay at home. Except Jesus was financially supported by women who travelled with him. Jesus subverts the gender stereotypes we so naturally submit to: he even compares himself to a mother hen and a woman who has lost her coin. Similarly, women are commended for doing all sorts of things society might perceive as masculine, whether it be making business decisions (Proverbs 31:24) or fighting in wars (Judges 4).
The theologian Preston Sprinkle makes the point forcefully:
We need to be careful to make sure our vision for male and female follows what the Bible actually says, rather than what we think it says. For what the Bible says is wonderfully freeing: rather than having to worry about conforming to man-made stereotypes, it is far more focused on whether we are being transformed to be more like Jesus.
Spot the difference
So if there are similarities in what men and women are called to be, what can we say about the differences?
We can say that God has designed men and women differently in their bodies and gifted them with the abilities to perform particular tasks; men, who tend to be stronger on average, may be gifted with the ability to perform more manual tasks (there is an assumption in Adam’s punishment in Genesis 3 that the man is the one to tend to the ground), and they are certainly called to use their strength and any power they have (whether by nature or nurture) to protect and to honour others, rather than to abuse it (cf. 1 Peter 3:7).
More obviously, God has given women bodies which are capable of amazing things, in particular, bearing children. It is interesting that when God curses the snake in Genesis 3, rather than saying he will come into conflict with Adam’s seed, God says he will come into conflict with the “offspring of woman”. The women in Jesus’ lineage, beginning with Eve, have a unique part to play in God’s plan to overcome the curse and defeat evil!
This is not to say that a man who is physically weak is less of a man, or a woman who does not bear children (whether through singleness, or infertility on either her part or that of her husband) is any less of a woman. Samson was renowned for using his immense strength, whereas Jesus laid aside his power; but Jesus is our model for godly masculinity, not Samson. Similarly, when the Lord has closed Hannah’s womb in 1 Samuel, there is no doubt that she is a real woman (and indeed, a more godly one than her fertile rival Penninah, who keeps trying to provoke her). It’s very possible to over-emphasise the importance of our differences (in a way which distorts Biblical manhood and womanhood). Equally, to pretend they do not matter at all doesn’t do justice to what the Bible says.
The Bible does make clear that men and women are different, and are to appear differently. It seems to be this which lies behind the command in Deuteronomy 22:5 (“A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing”): the two are to be distinct. Similarly, in the New Testament (in a passage which is difficult to interpret in today’s world), Paul writes that there is to be a distinction between man’s appearance and woman’s appearance: “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.” (1 Corinthians 12:14-15). He argues that not only are men and women’s appearances naturally different, but how they present themselves also ought to be different (in his context, men having heads uncovered, women having them covered).
And there are some commands which are gendered within the Bible, whether that is through context or the Creator’s design. When Paul writes to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 to model their relationship on Christ and the church, he addresses them differently, with different instructions. Similarly, when he gives instructions to churches, he sometimes says different things to men and to women (eg. 1 Timothy 2). How one applies those passages today is a matter of debate (and faithful Christians take different views), but that Paul recognised that there were differences between men and women is surely not in dispute.
Some people point to the existence of eunuchs (who are affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19), to suggest that the Bible might not only recognise, but approve of gender fluidity: “Not everyone can accept this word [the benefits of singleness], but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:11-12).
This goes beyond what Jesus is saying, however: eunuchs were biological males, even if, through what others had done, their sexual organs had been affected. Ultimately, there is nothing within this to suggest that Jesus has something like one’s internal sense of ‘gender’ in mind, rather than their biological sex (eunuchs born that way, or made that way), or what they did with their sexuality (those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom). Indeed, just a few verses earlier, Jesus has directly affirmed that God created humanity as male and female (Matthew 19:4) from the very beginning.
Who am I really?
At the heart of today’s transgender ideology is a question of identity: who am I really? Are our bodies intrinsic to who we are, or is it just how we feel inside that matters?
“There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), the Bible tells us. The questions transgender people are asking are not new: in the New Testament world, people were asking the same things. The Judaeo-Christian worldview, which placed high importance on the value of the body, came into early conflict with Greek ideas, which saw it (and other physical things) as unimportant, or in some extreme cases, something to be escaped from.
We see this in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church, where some believers - not viewing what they did with their bodies as important, as they thought it was their souls which really mattered - had been having sex with prostitutes. Paul resists such attempts to divide the body and the soul:
We cannot divide body and soul into two different parts of our identity. In fact, the word most often translated as soul from the Old Testament, nephesh, is very rarely detached from the concept of the body, and has the broader sense of ‘person’, and the same is true of the Greek word psyche in the New Testament.
The low view of the body imported from the Greeks led some within the early Christian community to think of the flesh as dirty and inferior, compared with the spiritual and superior soul. This heresy, which became known as Gnosticism, denied that God was the one who had created physical matter. Gnosticism began to rise in popularity at the end of the 1st century AD, and, although it didn’t have a fixed set of beliefs, it generally attributed physical creation to a figure called the Demiurge, who was opposed to God, and had tried to trap some of the divine spark inside physical matter (and as a result, Gnostics twisted the gospel to make it about our souls escaping our physical bodies).
Such views are not too dissimilar to views today about how people might have a ‘female soul trapped inside a male body’. The body, some people say, does not represent your true self, rather, your soul or your mind: if you feel you are a woman, even though your biological sex is male, then you really are a woman, because your true self is rooted in your feelings, rather than in your physicality.
Closely related to Gnosticism was the heresy of Docetism: because a physical body was viewed as inferior, some people felt that it would be beneath God to take on mortal flesh. Instead, they said, Jesus must only have seemed to look like a human. This is probably what the apostle John has in view in his letters:
Instead, the Incarnation is the ultimate affirmation that our bodies do matter: God Himself did not take on some unembodied soul, but to be fully human, had to take on a (sexed) body, coming in the person of the man Jesus Christ. This body was subject to the same experiences our bodies experience. We read in the gospels about Jesus getting tired (John 4:6), getting thirsty (John 4:28), about him eating (Mark 2:15), sleeping (Mark 4:38), sweating blood (Luke 22:44), and experiencing intense physical pain and dying (Mark 15:37). Indeed, even when Jesus was resurrected and ascended into heaven, he had a physical body (and will have one for eternity!), still marked with the physical scars from his crucifixion. Our bodies, although transformed, will remain a part of who we are.
Liberation through surrender
One of the many wonderful blessings we have in Christ is a new identity.
People who are questioning their gender are often engaged in a quest to find their true identity; they may not feel like their body is a reflection of the person they feel they are, or they may react against the expectations society places upon their sex. Some view identity as something which they can construct for themselves, looking for the right words or pronouns to define themselves (there are more than 50 suggested options for gender on Facebook, and you now have the ability to type in any label for yourself if the ones they suggest aren’t adequate). The quest to throw off the shackles from labels we don’t identify with is supposed to be liberating, but some people actually find it exhausting.
As Christians, we believe that we have access to an identity which is God-given through the gospel; it comes not as a result of anything we have done, but as a result of what Jesus Christ has achieved on our behalf. Rather than us having to construct who we are, the God who defines reality has declared who we really are.
He says that we are in Christ, part of His body, united to Jesus in His death, resurrection and glorification (Romans 6:5-6). He says that we are loved by Him, forgiven by Him, and chosen before the creation of the world by Him (Ephesians 1:4). He says that we are the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14) and His “handiwork, created in Jesus to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10), which He has prepared for us in advance. He says that we are “children of God” (1 John 3:1), “brothers” (Hebrews 2:11), “heirs” (Galatians 3:29), His “friends” (John 15:15) and “no longer foreigners and strangers” (Ephesians 2:19), but part of His church.
This is the core of our identity: we are who God says we are. It is fundamentally freeing, setting us up to live life and live it to the full (John 10:10). It is a steadfast and firm foundation, which holds regardless of the mistakes we make, and is as unchanging as God himself is. And it is more important than our family background, our status and social standing, our power, our performance and anything else of which we might be proud.
Paul makes this clear in Galatians 3:
Male and female fade into insignificance compared with being “children of God.” In God’s kingdom, neither sex is privileged over the other: we are all equally dependent on His mercy and grace.
And yet that does not mean sex is completely irrelevant; some people have read far too much into Paul’s statement here and claimed that it gives a license for any and every gender (on a reading where male and female do not matter in any way at all). Such a reading does no justice to Paul’s other writings; it is ironic that some of those who claim that gender does not matter are the same as those who criticise Paul as being anti-women.
Whether it be his teachings on how men and women should relate to one another within marriage (Ephesians 5), his writing on same-sex sexual relations (Romans 1), his words on slaves relating to masters (Colossians 3 and Ephesians 6) or (however one interprets it) his teaching on gender roles within church life (1 Timothy 2), it is clear that Paul believed the distinctions he had mentioned in Galatians 3 were in fact still relevant, in some sense, after all. We are, by God’s grace, new creations, but not in the sense that the original creation has been entirely destroyed; rather, it has been redeemed and transformed.
A glorious trans…formation
It is an oft-repeated slogan from activists - on all kinds of issues - that they are on the ‘right side of history’, displaying a remarkable sense of self-confidence. This is no different when it comes to the transgender debate. Christians have an advantage here over our secular counterparts, however; we can believe with confidence that we really do know where (regardless of all the twists and turns en route) history is actually going, as a result of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which has ushered in a new age and declared God’s victory over the powers of sin and death that were unleashed after the Fall.
So what does the future hold? Contrary to popular views of souls floating around on the clouds playing harps, the Biblical worldview is one where believers in Jesus will be bodily resurrected. That is what resurrection actually means: there were other words the early Christians could have used for the reanimation of souls, but resurrection meant bodies. Our resurrection is predicated on Jesus’ own resurrection. His body was not left to decay in the grave, but was raised and transformed.
Jesus’ body has both continuity and discontinuity. He was not given a new body: instead, his old body was transformed. He was both recognisable (at times) and not recognisable (at other times): his body even bore the scars of his crucifixion. The gospel accounts stress that Jesus really was physically there: he broke bread (Luke 24:30), could be touched (Luke 24:39) and ate fish (Luke 24:43). Yet his body could also do other things, including disappearing (Luke 24:31) and appearing through locked doors (John 20:19). His transformed body is not subject to disease, decay or death, but has been raised eternally. As it has been with Jesus’ body, so it will be with ours, for he is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
There is nothing to suggest that Jesus’ body did not remain a sexed one after his resurrection: the continuity with his former body strongly suggests he remained male, and he is still referred to with masculine forms of words in the text. Some have pointed to Jesus’ words about no marriage after the resurrection to suggest that in the new creation, no one will be male or female, but again, this is going beyond what Jesus says; marriage is, after all, a temporally-bound covenant, which ceases upon death (which is why someone is then able to marry again). The evidence about the resurrected body - such as we have it - is that it will be sexed, but in such a way that our maleness and femaleness will no longer be impacted as they were by the Fall.
For on that day, nothing will be impacted by the Fall. All our distress and disease will be finally defeated: just as Jesus began to bring God’s Kingdom on earth, restoring sight to the blind, speech to the dumb, or hearing to the deaf, so, on that day, every distress - including any distress around our gender - will be washed away. We will all feel fully at home in our bodies, and any disconnect between our minds and our bodies will have disappeared. Suffering will be gone, with death defeated, the curse overturned and our tears wiped away.
The gospel provides hope for everyone who is struggling with any kind of mental affliction: for those who are struggling with their gender, it will not always be so. We do know where history is headed: as Billy Graham once said, “I’ve read the last page of the Bible; it’s going to turn out all right.”
Bringing it all together
Although gender ideology might seem to be a relatively new phenomenon, it strikes at the heart of questions which have been around for thousands of years (and which the Bible is well aware of): Who are we? What is it to be male or female? Are we our souls or our bodies? Who is the real me?
The Christian worldview provides both an explanation for why the world is the way it is, and a message of hope for the future. It does not seek to avoid questions around suffering and distress, but recognises the reality of a world gone wrong, including in the areas of sex and gender. It proclaims that God’s original, good design for us has been spoiled. But it also declares that what God made originally - sexed bodies, male and female - is a good design, and one with which we are to live in accordance. Our bodies are given to us as good gifts, not as curses. They are part of who we are.
But in God’s wonderful grace, they are not all we are. We have been given a new identity by Him, one far more central to us than being male or female. One day His good design will be renewed, as He raises us bodily to everlasting life; and on that day, any distress around sex or gender will be gone. Instead we will all be with Jesus, with people from all “tribes and peoples and languages” (and both sexes!), worshipping the lamb.
Peter Ladd is the Head of Content at CARE. He studied Classics and Theology at Oxford University, heads up the 20s/30s ministry in his church alongside his wife, and is a lay preacher.