Gender in our Culture—Cutting Through the Chaos

by Dr. Owen Strachan on August 18, 2019; last featured June 13, 2023
Featured in Answers Magazine
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What should believers do when we disagree with our neighbors about the very nature of humanity?

Editor’s note: This discussion contains terminology that may not be appropriate for sensitive readers and children. Parents are cautioned.

We’re used to disagreement. For example, hailing from Maine, I was raised from the cradle to cheer for the Boston Red Sox. As I ventured beyond New England, I discovered a strange species of humanity known as Yankees fans. I did my best to get along with them, but I freely admit that I am a work in progress on this matter. We all have these sorts of friendly disagreements—over teams, cuisine, vacation spots, Oxford commas, city ordinances, and on the list goes.

What do we do as believers, however, when we disagree with our neighbors about not just baseball or even a local government policy but the very nature of humanity? This is no trivial question.

In 2019, [and even more so in 2023] this is where we find ourselves. No issue has more exposed our fundamental divide than that of transgenderism, the view that some people are born in the wrong body, essentially, and so must take action to bring out their true “gender identity.” Said differently, those who advocate the acceptance of transgender humanity believe that a girl can be trapped in a boy’s body—and vice versa—and thus should take steps to change their body so that it accurately reflects who they truly are.

This issue sneaked up on the church. We were accustomed to debates over creation and evolution, yes. We didn’t see that the debate over Genesis 1–3 (in particular) would jump from the earth’s age to human identity. Today, believers who believe in creation ex nihilo find themselves defending not only the historicity of creation but the historicity of humanity. The early chapters of Genesis, after all, teach us how the earth came to be and also how mankind came to be.

In an age like this, what should Christians do? More to the point: As debates over the nature of humanity rage, what should Christians say? Here are three basic points to guide believers who wish to speak the truth about the creative order and human design in a confused society and a rebellious age.

First: We Need to Know What the Bible Teaches about the Sexes

The first priority of God’s people should not be them. It should be us. By this I mean that we need to study Genesis 1–3 afresh. We need to go deep in the wise plan of God and see with renewed interest the intention of God for the human race.

The Lord made the man and the woman in his image (Genesis 1:26–27). You cannot pluck out a certain quality of humanity and identify that as the core characteristic of the image of God. The man and the woman are the image, in their totality, including their soul, rationality, relationality, and initial righteousness (see Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:7).

The man and the woman are thus fully equal in terms of worth and dignity before God. But they do not have the same identity. The man is formed first and is made to work and watch over the garden (Genesis 2:15), while the woman is made from the man and named by him (Genesis 2:21–23). Here in the Genesis account, the Lord is signaling what Ephesians 5:22–33 will unfold in full detail: Adam is the head of his wife, Eve. He is called to love and lead her, and she is called to follow and submit to him. The marriage relationship, we learn in Paul’s teaching, is nothing less than a picture of the gospel love between Christ and his blood-bought church (Ephesians 5:25).

All this means that manhood and womanhood are divinely created realities. The sexes were not dreamed up by repressive authoritarians who wanted to institutionalize their domination of the weak. It is God who made manhood, and God who made womanhood.

In Genesis 2, the zoomed-in picture of the sixth day, it is God who forms the man from the earth’s dust, and God who forms the woman from the man’s rib (Genesis 2:7, 21–22). You could not get a more obvious statement from the Lord about the sexes: He made them. He sculpted them, works of beauty, just as he wanted them to be.

He not only created them a man and a woman, but he gave them specific roles and duties within the home. The man would need to provide and work and protect; the woman was designed with the capacity to nurture and bear life, an awe-inspiring ability if there ever was one. From this constitution, she sees the need not merely to keep a baby or child alive, but to love her home and children in a set-aside way (see Titus 2:5). All this God-glorifying work takes place in the context of marriage. It is not an art class project where we can put together the pieces however we see fit, but a divine institution grounded in the Master’s creative design.

The first man and first woman were not evolved from gases; they were designed to maximally honor God according to their distinctive body and constitution. Your body, we conclude, is not raw material that you manipulate to fit your perceived identity, whatever that may be.

All this speaks not merely to creation but created order. There is a structure and form and purpose behind the sexes. The first man and first woman were not evolved from gases; they were designed to honor God according to their distinctive body and constitution. Your body, we conclude, is not raw material that you manipulate to fit your perceived identity, whatever that may be. Your body’s form—either manly or womanly—is a message from God, telling you a key part of who you are and who you are to be by his grace.

Second: We Need to Make Clear Our Desire for All People to Flourish

The preceding ideal, where God ennobles our gender differences for his eternal glorious purposes, may sound good to you and me. (I certainly hope it does!) But we’re not in the days of Genesis 2, are we? We’re in a post-Genesis 3 world, a world where the real historical sin of Adam has tainted and damned us all. Why would anyone in this world be interested in God’s ideal?

Answer: We need to make clear that this ideal is designed for all people, even today, to flourish.

I’m not saying this will be easy, but we need both eyes open as we understand the people we’re talking to. We are born sinners without any coaching or instruction. The fall had all kinds of effects, but one of the chief effects is that people sin without fear and claim a sinful and unbiblical identity for themselves. This is true across the globe, yes, but the West seems to have entered a Romans 1 environment, where pagan thought has displaced even a biblical (or even distantly traditional) conception of humanity.

What do I mean here? I mean that people today do not see themselves as made by God. They believe that they are uncreated, unbound to the Lord, and unfettered by any moral decree. Without the Bible as their absolute authority, they may do as they wish; they use their body as they like; they worship the very world they live in, not the one who made it. In their minds, they may freely enter into homosexual and polysexual engagements without respect to any theological or ethical system, and they openly and proudly reject the wisdom of God seen in both nature and Scripture. Increasingly, our neighbor is not even vaguely religious in the Christian sense. The people around us live, act, think, and desire like pagans.

So what do we do? Do we angrily detach from our society? Do we hate people who hate God? Do we let fear of hostility and attack take hold of us? All of these responses may prove natural to our flesh, but these are not godly responses.

As followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, we have a higher call, a supernatural one (supra naturam, literally “above nature”). We are called to love those who reject God’s truth and God’s design. We want them to flourish. This does not mean affirming them in their sin (a tricky matter, to be sure, and more on that below). It does mean that we pray for them, that we seek to win them rather than shun them, and that we show kindness to them as we are able.

Our witness to people who are living in rebellion against God—whether by embracing a new “gender identity” or otherwise—is grounded in theological truth. We know who they are: they are image-bearers made by God for his glory. They are human. They will taste true freedom only when they obey God by divine grace, and they will know true happiness only when they submit to divine rule.

We thus seek to tell our neighbors the truth, making clear that we want them to flourish. But flourishing does not mean adopting a false view of the human identity; flourishing does not come when people affirm us in our fallenness. Flourishing means leaving sin behind and living according to God’s design.



Top: In 2017, riots broke out when President Trump revoked federal laws granting transgender people access to bathrooms that match their gender identity. Middle: In 2018, Danica Roem of Virginia became the first openly transgender person to be elected to and serve in a US state legislature. Bottom: In 2019, a debate erupted when transgender students Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood won first and second place (respectively) in the girls’ 100-meter race at the Connecticut state open finals.

Third: We Need to Contend in Public for Biblical Truth

As we communicate these truths and live in this grace-filled way, people may respond by telling us that they have a right to form their own identity. It is wrong, they may say, for anyone to shape anyone else’s understanding of themselves. This sort of response may also come with a demand that we use their preferred pronouns and affirm their chosen lifestyle.

In addition to what I’ve already laid out above, what should we do in these sticky circumstances? Let me list four shaping principles.

1. We need to make clear that society depends upon certain hard-and-fast realities.

It may sound great to choose your own gender, for example, but what does this choice mean, say, for public restrooms? Are we going to have five different restroom types for five different genders? Or 50 for 50? Or 1,000 for 1,000? This line of reasoning is logistically impossible to execute.

2. We need to show how biology is actually quite clear on these matters.

Dr. Georgia Purdom has laid out the biological issues elsewhere in this issue. Yes, a tiny fraction of the populace is born “intersex” (having ambiguous or both male and female genitalia), but the vast majority of people are either male or female. These distinctive sexual realities shape our lives. As just one measurable distinction, men have, on average, 1000% more testosterone than women.

3. We must consider the natural desire to be affirmed, which is truly the quest of our age.

Many “transgender” individuals seek public acceptance of their lifestyle, but in a way that goes beyond merely wanting inclusion. All too often, our culture’s conception of affirming one another means agreeing with one another.

Disagreement is seen as hostile and evil today. So Christians need to communicate to unsaved neighbors that we can disagree without hatred. In truth, everyone disagrees on something; the non-Christian who says we’re non-affirming disagrees with us, after all. In place of unbounded affirmation and agreement, it’s better to advocate for mutual respect when disagreements exist.

To extend the point: Christians like the bakery-owning Kleins in Oregon, the florist Barronelle Stutzman in Washington, and the wedding-cake designer Jack Phillips in Colorado have all suffered for their biblical ethics in recent days. They have all been denounced and hated for their “lack of love.” The irony is often lost on folks today, who fail to see that they are hateful in the name of love. When this happens, as it will, we should point out the inconsistency.

4. We need to use discretion and wisdom regarding pronouns and identity markers.

We know biblically that figures like Esther and Daniel not only had to work and live in pagan environments but had to take on false names connected to idolatry. People around us today voluntarily and happily do what was forced upon faithful men and women in Scripture.

On the other hand, we must never approve of sin while we engage with unbelievers, including those embracing a transgender identity. We should explicitly call them out of a life of lostness, graciously directing them to leave behind cross-dressing, false gender identity, and other trappings of a transgender lifestyle.

Are there situations at work when we may be required to refer to a person by a pronoun that does not match their birth sex? There likely will be. Will teachers face a choice between getting fired or using the “preferred pronoun” of a supposedly transgender child? Yes, I predict some will.

Is there a one-size-fits-all answer to these and other related predicaments? We must never compromise the gospel and biblical truth in our witness, but we also may face instances where we feel compelled to use the new name of “transgender” individuals. Whatever we decide to do, we should never affirm their lifestyle and broader identity.

Conceding to their new name is not our preference. But when you live in Babylon, as we increasingly do, you must recognize that there are some gray areas that stretch us and challenge us. In those circumstances, we should not shrug our shoulders as if the wisdom of God is of no account. We should, however, strive like Daniel and his friends to live faithfully in a pagan environment that fundamentally contrives to compromise our witness. And when necessary, like Daniel’s friends, we should stand firm when commanded to bow before an idol.

Truth and the Christian Witness

The debate over gender and gender identity waxes hot in our time. If we once thought it was tough to eat Thanksgiving dinner with fans of our rival sports team, it is much more difficult when we graciously decline to affirm a family member’s new “gender identity.” We may well face hatred for this decision, even though it is motivated by love. Christians may wonder if they have, in fact, lost their ability to witness by speaking and standing for truth, however winsome we try to be.

This is what we must remember in days ahead: speaking and living according to the truth isn’t part of Christian witness. Speaking and living according to the truth is Christian witness. If God’s Word and its holy doctrines are not front and center in our evangelism and engagement, then we’re just offering a spiritualized version of can-do self-help to the world.

We have so much to offer: we have Christ and his gospel. This transforming truth, in the final analysis, is why Christians participate in our turbulent cultural debate over gender. We bring not only the truth of God’s order and God’s good design, but the transformative power of God’s saving message.

Faced with a lost, confused, and rebellious world, God’s children have much that we can and should say. But above every other word we could speak, we extend hope to the sinner: a satisfying and permanent resolution to the greatest disagreement that divides us all.

Transgender 101: What Do All These New Words Mean?

Cisgender, agender, gender fluidity—the sexual revolution has created a host of bewildering terms to describe the struggle for people to reconcile their internal desires with their bodies. What should Christians do with this new vocabulary?

It can be overwhelming, especially if you’ve never heard these words before or experienced these struggles. It’s tempting to dismiss the new vocabulary as a postmodern attempt to restructure reality, rejecting both the Bible’s terminology and basic biology.

Christians know that the Bible provides the solution to humanity’s deepest needs, and we don’t need to change any aspect of its message or vocabulary. Our greatest responsibility is to understand how redemption in Jesus Christ fulfills God’s highest purpose for humanity and to know how to share this good news with others.

Yet God’s Word also calls us to reach people with sensitivity and understanding. A dismissive, uncaring attitude won’t help anyone.

Familiarity with modern terminology does not necessarily mean you accept these terms as descriptions of what should be. They simply allow you to talk accurately and sensitively about what people claim they are feeling.

The most important concept to understand is the attempt to distinguish between (a) the “sex” a person is born with (physical characteristics of a male or female) and (b) the “gender” a person identifies with (their “lived role” as man or woman or other).

Gender dysphoria is the general term to describe an individual’s discontent with the gender “imposed” at birth based on visible physical sex characteristics. (This is referred to as “assigned gender.”)

Individuals who are content with their sex and gender at birth are referred to as cisgender (cis- means “on this side of”). People who identify with a gender different from the one they were created with and had at birth are referred to as transgender (trans- means “on the other side of”).

These “other” identities can take many forms. Some individuals identify with different genders at different times (called gender fluidity) or no gender at all (called agendered). The possibilities—and the vocabulary to describe them—are seemingly endless.

Christians must recognize that some people really do experience this range of desires, and they will be offended if we deny the existence of those desires. We should be sympathetic and acknowledge that the issues are real, but then we need to point them to the deeper issues, which are covered in the Bible.

Ultimately, we should not follow the culture in separating sex from gender, which is really the crux of the issue. We don’t have to change the Bible’s vocabulary or apologize for what it says. God designed his Word so that it would communicate to all humans and clearly show them the way to be transformed into the full and satisfying humanity—designed as male or female from the beginning—that God provided for us through Jesus Christ.

Owen Strachan is associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Seminary and the author of The Grand Design (with Gavin Peacock) and the forthcoming Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind.

Answers Magazine

September–October 2019

The fact that the human race is divided into two biological groups, male and female, is unquestionable. So how is it possible that people question this distinction?

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