Our scientific, societal, and theological understanding of gender has shifted over time. These changes beg the question, in our modern-day discussions about the theology of gender and the place for different genders in the church, where is the place for those experiencing gender dysphoria?
Gender dysphoria is the experience of distress when one’s psychological and emotional gender identity does not match one’s biological sex. Gender identity concerns are not something that is experienced in exactly the same way by all that experience it. The people who deal with these concerns vary as individuals and in their sociocultural contexts.
While the experience of gender dysphoria is not particularly common, it is becoming more widely discussed in the secular world. Eventually, the church will need to consider how to respond to those in their church and those unchurched who are experiencing these concerns.
Our modern-day understanding of gender has been built upon the various understandings throughout history. According to Adrian Thatcher, it is important that we examine the full scope of these beliefs for a few reasons. First, a better understanding of tradition helps contemporaries in developing a stronger understanding of gender for future generations. Second, the strangeness of some early beliefs about gender should make us aware of the fragility of our own assumptions. We should not assume we have arrived at the complete truth about sex or gender. Finally, there have been major contributions to the study of gender just in the last twenty years—information theologians would be wrong to just ignore. For the purposes of this paper, I will focus mostly on more recent concepts of gender. However, various understandings of gender throughout history are important in shaping how we think about it today. The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality and Gender is a good resource on past understandings of gender and various other topics—it it written by multiple experts in the field.
In God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction, Adrian Thatcher writes about two more current theories on gender. She says “essentialism” is the doctrine that God created humanity in two distinct sexes, each made for the other. This idea receives vast religious support, often based on the creation narratives. The other theory Thatcher describes is “constructionism,” or the view that nothing about gender is fixed but rather constructed. This theory assumes that gender is not necessarily revealed by God but rather historically constructed by things such as society, scripture, and cultural shifts. Thatcher points to 2 Timothy as a scriptural example of construction. The author instructs mean to pray a certain way, and women to act, dress, and speak a certain way. Thatcher says, “the author is appealing to doctrine in order to substantiate his view of the inferiority of gender.” Likewise, we often appeal to gender norms, roles, and constructs—and even scripture— to justify our views on things today. One passage often cited to support views on gender is Genesis 1:27: “In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”This passage is cited often to assert that our genders our essential to our being, and our relationship to God. However, cited just as often as this is Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This passage is cited to insinuate that our gender is irrelevant to God, as we can grow in relationship with Christ no matter what. However, it it is important to realize that isolated scripture verses rarely will do justice to the complexity of the text or the issues in question. Furthermore, these specific passages were written within a context most likely not meant to address gender dysphoria.
Mark Yarhouse writes about three frameworks for understanding gender. First, the “integrity framework” suggests that gender dysphoria in an active and overt denial of one’s own sex and destruction of the sacred image of the maleness and femaleness that is formed by God. Second, the “disability framework” suggests that gender dysphoria is a result of the fall—a nonmoral condition, not one that is chosen, but is also “not the way it’s supposed to be.” Third and finally, the “diversity framework” celebrates gender differences as an expression of diversity. In this framework, gender dysphoria is positive because it either diversifies identities and communities or diversifies norm constructs of sex and gender—the later being the stronger reason, according to Yarhouse.
In his work, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture, Yarhouse offers an idea on gender understanding that most other authors did not—compromise. Yarhouse says that all three of these theories can lead to self-esteem issues and shame. Instead, he suggests, that we work to create an “integrated framework” in our societies. Rather than pegging persons with gender dysphoria as lacking integrity, disabled, or diverse, perhaps we should do something else. Yarhouse’s integrated framework suggests three things: (1) We must recognize the integrity and reality of sex differences, (2) we must offer compassionate and caring management of those dealing with gender dysphoria, and (3) we must allow space for this broader understanding of gender to make meaning, such a creating positive change, in our identities, communities, and church.
In Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God, Megan DeFranza cites the creation stories like this, ““The creation narratives are constructed with a focus on shared humanity…They inaugurate the story of God’s redemptive work, which begins with a biological family but presses beyond biology to include other in the family of God.” I think this open-minded outlook on the creation narratives is refreshing. Defranza takes the creation narratives for what they are—stories. These stories introduce us to a beautiful humanity that God created. If the story ended here, I could understand more easily how people could be closed off to persons dealing with gender dysphoria. However, the rest of the biblical stories to follow are full of diverse and complicated people who all need to grace of God. Defranza goes on saying, “Male, female, and intersex persons are all created in the image of God and are all called to be conformed to the image of Jesus.”
Surely this sentiment is one we too often forget. If God created all people in the image of God, they must all be valuable to that same God.
Gender dysphoria may present itself in the Church in many ways. A Church may see people frustrated with stifling gender roles, living as intersex or transgender individuals, unable to embrace the Church for fear that it wont accept their gender dysphoria, and just about everything in between. My brief study on this topic has illuminated the vast differences between the individual persons dealing with these issues. This has lead me to believe that the Church must seek to listen and understand these people as individuals before jumping to conclusions. Furthermore, the Church must seek to find a place within itself for people dealing with gender dysphoria. This call for a place does not discount the level of complexity that comes with issues of gender within the Church. These issues are deep rooted in tradition, experiences, human inadequacy, and perhaps most notably, scripture. However, the reference to scripture, including the creation narratives, should never lead us to a conclusion of exclusion. If it does, we should probably go back and read again and again and again. All people, no matter their gender, desperately need the love and grace of God.