The Freedom of the Gender Binary in Action
So far in this series, I’ve introduced the concept of the freedom of the gender binary and argued that the New Testament authors’ approach to masculinity shows that they understood and applied it. Those posts have been primarily about the theory, but what about the practice? How do we live out the freedom of the gender binary, and how might doing so help us as we think about various aspects of and discussions about gender in the world around us?
The Freedom of the Gender Binary and Gender Dysphoria
An obvious question to ask is whether recognising the freedom of the gender binary might be able to help us as we think about gender dysphoria and those affected by it.
The first important thing to recognise is that the gender identity struggles about which I have shared have been very minor compared to those faced by some people. Gender dysphoria is the experience of distress or discomfort because of an incongruence between biological sex (what the body says) and gender identity (what the mind says). While many people experience a mild form of gender dysphoria in childhood, as I did, for some people the experience extends into adolescence and beyond or appears only later, in adulthood, and often causes such distress for those affected that they feel they cannot cope with the idea of continuing to live in line with their biological sex. For many, the experience of dysphoria can be incredibly painful and distressing, and so our first response must always be compassion, just as Jesus always had compassion on those who were suffering.1
Gender dysphoria is a complex phenomenon. There is little agreement on causes, but it is generally felt that there are probably many different reasons people experience it. For this reason, a recognition of the freedom of the gender binary will not, by itself, solve the gender identity struggles of someone experiencing considerable levels of gender dysphoria. It would be insensitive and naïve to suggest that it might. In some cases, however, perhaps especially among children whose experience may be shaped by a feeling of not fitting the mould of the gender suggested by their biological sex,2 or individuals who experience a less extreme level discomfort with their gender, the freedom of the gender binary may have a positive impact and could even lessen the experience of dysphoria.
How then might be we put the freedom of the gender binary into action such that it might offer some level of help to some who experience gender dysphoria and to those who may experience less severe discomfort with their gender?
The Source of Identity
The freedom of the gender binary flows from the truth that human identity comes from God. Identity is meant to be received, not achieved. It is therefore not found in how we feel about ourselves or what other people think about us, but in what God says. This is the unique and life-giving nature of the Bible’s approach to identity. It is the only form of identity available to us which is solid, stable and secure.
It is this approach to identity which allows us to enjoy the freedom of being male or female as a received identity which is true regardless of how we feel or what we do, and which therefore gives us the freedom to be how we are without changing who we are. And yet the reality is that many Christians don’t live with this form of identity. So often we are actually finding our sense of identity in how we are, in what we do, in our relationships, or in our achievements. Can many of us honestly say that if we lost everything, if everything external and internal to us changed, we would still feel secure in who we are? Those wrestling with their gender identity need to experience the freedom of a received identity, rooted in what God says about us, but it’s harder to do that when others around you aren’t doing the same. All of us need to embrace a truly biblical understanding of our own identity if we are going to call others to do the same.
One of the factors which can lead to or contribute to discomfort with one’s gender identity is the presence of unhelpful and unbiblical gender stereotypes. Culture is full of these. In fact, the cultural understanding of transgender experience often reinforces them. It is often a failure to measure up to or to feel comfortable within gender stereotypes which is deemed to be an early sign of a mismatch between biological sex and gender identity. One documentary about transgender children featured a dad who said, ‘I knew my son was really a girl the moment I saw him run’. It was diagnosis through stereotypes.
The church has often been guilty of supporting unnecessary gender stereotypes. Desperate to maintain the fact that men and women are different we have propagated a whole load of unbiblical stereotypes about how men and women should be, and in the process, we’ve completely ignored the freedom of the gender binary which should help us to recognise that within masculinity and femininity we will find huge diversity and that this is part of God’s plan. These stereotypes can be found in our conversations (especially our jokes), our sermons, and the events we run.
Every time we reiterate an unbiblical stereotype about gender in the church we cause those who don’t fit that mould to feel uncomfortable and to believe that they need to try to be a certain way in order to be a real man or a real woman. We undermine the freedom of the gender binary and replace it with the oppression of gender stereotypes. I wonder how many men and women are sitting in our churches feeling like they don’t really make the cut because they don’t fit the common stereotypes. We need to reclaim the freedom of the gender binary by dispensing with unbiblical gender stereotypes if we are going to help everyone to find peace and contentment in who God has created them to be.
If my understanding of the freedom of the gender binary in the New Testament is right, then, while we need to dispense with unbiblical gender stereotypes, we also need to rightly express gender difference. I believe the New Testament guidance on expressing gender difference shows us that we are to do this through our appearance – not seeking to actively create ambiguity about our gender – and by living out the role appropriate to our gender.
This latter idea, that we have different roles according to whether we are a man or a woman, is frequently present in Christian discussions about gender, but it often gets attached to unhelpful stereotypes about what men and women should be like as they perform their roles. We start with what the Bible says, but then we go further. This ends up with Christians claiming that men should be those who ‘charge against enemy gates, leading from the front, and refusing to take cover behind their wives and children’, which is clearly a role (regardless of whether one agrees that it is the male role), while simultaneously claiming that things like ‘[l]ispy sentences, light gestures, soft mannerisms, and flamboyant jokes’ are a ‘perversion of masculinity’. Or we get the confusing mix of role and manner in: ‘At our house, swordplay is practice for life … I want [my sons] to see that the primary burden of defense, whether of home, family, church, or country – lies with them.’3 This understanding of the role of men may or may not be right, but surely physical aggression isn’t the only way for this to take place. The role has been mixed up with a manner of performing it which isn’t specified biblically.
The freedom of the gender binary means we can live out our roles, thus expressing who we are, without having to change how we are. So, I might be the complete opposite to a male friend – I’m sensitive, he’s tough-skinned; I hate aggression, he’s always up for a fight; I’m drawn to people, he’s drawn to objects; I have no interest in football, he lives for the game – but we can both live out our male role equally well. We may do it in very different ways, but we can still do it. We’re men because God has made us men and says we are men, and so we perform our male role, even while being completely different in almost every other characteristic. The freedom of the gender binary allows us to do this; it brings freedom to be how we are without changing who we are.
This means that while we must follow the biblical call to express our gender through our appearance and by living out the role of our gender, we must be careful not to go further than the Bible says. We live out our role, but we do so in line with the personality God has given us, embracing the freedom of our God-given gender.
An Invitation to Freedom
Recognising the freedom of the gender binary will not immediately end the distress of those around us experiencing considerable gender dysphoria, and there is a great need for us to find better ways to help such people to manage and reduce their dysphoria. But I wonder if there mightn’t be many people, both in and out of the church, who would find a great sense of peace and release if we put into action the freedom of the gender binary in our lives and our churches.
- 1 One of the most helpful and impacting steps to take when thinking through gender dysphoria is to hear the stories of some who have experienced it. These are easy to find online, both in writing and on video. The personal accounts are often deeply moving as people share about the continual feelings of discomfort they experience, the distress this causes them and sometimes even the strong hatred they feel against their own bodies.
- 2 This seems to sometimes be at least one factor involved in childhood gender dysphoria. See the examples given by Dr Kenneth Zucker, who directed the Gender Identity Clinic at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto for several decades, quoted in Ryan Anderson, When Harry Became Sally (Encounter Books, 2018), pp.136-137.
- 3 Joe Rigney, ‘Masculinity Handed Down’ in Designed for Joy (Crossway, 2015), pp.36-37.