Gender and Gender Fluidity – A Christian Response

In July 2015 the Australian reported that the Sydney University SRC were agitating for a variety of changes in the way the University categorised students and facilities like toilets and change rooms. They wanted less binary and more inclusive gender categories. Josh Han the SRC representative for gender matters, or Queer Officer as he was termed, said: “It’s about deconstructing societal views about what it means to be a man or a woman. If you only have two genders, there are limited interactions. But if you have a diversity of gender identities you don’t have these closed categories. It means you can have way more than 58 gender categories.” Among those 58 options according to Facebook are bi-gender, questioning, gender variant, pangender, intersex and 27 varieties of transgender and transsexual.
Now lest you think that this is just the latest fad in student politics you need to think again. The signs are that the concept of ‘gender diversity’ and ‘gender fluidity’ is becoming mainstream. The categories LGBTI are now recognised in some Commonwealth legislation. The Victorian State government has announced that it is planning to spend approximately $10 million on a ‘Pride Centre’ to showcase LGBTI art and history and $5 million on a Gender Dysphoria clinic at Monash Health. The Victorian government has also recently appointed a Gender and Sexuality Commissioner Ro Allen a long standing advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender diverse and intersex Victorians.
First we need to clarify how some of these terms are currently being used.
L = Lesbian, G = Gay, B = Bisexual, T = Transgender, I = Intersex, Q = Queer or questioning (‘Queer’ was originally a derogatory term but now adopted and rehabilitated by the Gay and gender questioning movements, although not all same sex attracted people support this term.It is also used to describe a political theory -‘Queer Theory’- that seeks to question and challenge all social norms. CIS gender = relating to a person whose self identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex; not transgender. (What in the past was called normative.)
‘Pangender’ is another term sometimes used to indicate the belief that gender is a very broad and inclusive thing and not restricted to traditional heterosexual attraction.
What is Gender Fluidity or transgenderism?
It is a way of thinking that makes a sharp distinction between sex and gender. Sex is still understood as biologically determined but gender is now seen as something that is entirely socially constructed and so a matter of personal choice. This means that there is no necessary connection between your gender identity and your biological sex. The two may be the same or they may be different. There is, it is claimed, no norm.
Another more political way of describing transgenderism is that it is an umbrella term for anyone whose role, behaviour or gender orientation is not in line with what our prevailing and dominantly heterosexual society currently expects from our biological sex.
How does current mainstream medical and Psychological understanding help us approach this issue?
The following three general categories are recognised that are relevant to this issue:
1. There is a very small group of people who are born with physically ambiguous genitalia. These are very rare deviations from the physically binary sexual norms and are generally understood as “disorders of human design.”
2. The second category is those who are biologically male or female but have a same sex attraction. This group is commonly identified as homosexual, lesbian, gay or same sex attracted. While the exact figure is disputed reliable recent surveys in Australia, such as the ‘Australian Study of Health and Relationships 2013’, indicate 3.3% of men and 3.6% of woman identify themselves as not heterosexual. But it should be noted that of these totals 1.3% of the men and 2.2% of the woman identified as Bisexual. Only 1.9% of the men identified as gay and only 1.2% of the women as lesbian. A very small % describes themselves as ‘other’.
With regard to the question of whether same sex attraction is innate or caused by psychological and social factors it is scientifically unclear at this stage and disputed.
3. The third group is described as experiencing ‘Gender dysphoria’. This is the term currently used by the Psychiatric profession in their ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ (DSM5). This describes people who have distress, confusion or tension between their biological sex and their gender identity. This is where a person is biologically male or female but feels they are like the opposite sex. This was formerly listed in the DSM as a gender disorder as it was understood as a mental or psychological disorder from the norm where sex and gender match. The change in the DSM definition to ‘dysphoria’ is seen by some professionals in the field as more of a social and philosophical shift rather than a scientific one. The number of people in this category is unclear and disputed but probably less than 1. % as can be seen from the ASHR survey (Quoted above). It’s also possible that there will be people who are same sex attracted (category 2. above) and also those in pre-pubescent confusion who will present with gender dysphoria. While this is a small number it is significant socially and for those people suffering this distress it is a real and challenging problem that requires compassionate and specialist care.
Measuring the number of people genuinely in this category is also difficult at present due to the wide spread publicity given to current gender politics and the ambiguity expressed by some young people during the developmental stage of adolescence. Also it must be remembered that adolescent surveys on sexuality are notoriously unreliable for the reasons of peer pressure and expectations, their vulnerability to popular media fashions, and the fact that a number of adolescents go through a period of sexual confusion and questioning during this period of their development, but at the end of puberty the overwhelming majority accept their biological sex.(As DSM5 indicates)

A recent history of sexual politics
Since the 1960’s there are four discernible stages in the recent history of sexual politics in the West. Each stage has been the subject of considerable political activism. Reflecting on these stages and the response of the general community
and the Christian community is instructive.
1. Stage one: The cause of women’s rights to equality.
As a political cause this goes all the way back to the 19th C and the Suffragettes and their campaign for women’s right to vote. But the cause for women’s rights took on a wider scope and a new energy with the advent of contemporary feminism in the 1960’s. While there is still much to be achieved in areas such as equal pay and representation in positions of leadership the achievements have been substantial and generally accepted by society.

From a Christian and Biblical standpoint women’s equality with men should never have been questioned for the N.T. makes it quite clear that in Christ we are one. Paul expresses it this way in Galatians 3:27-28 “… all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This together with the idea that we are all made in God’s image is the basis of the Christian idea of equality. The N.T. also makes clear that Christian Baptism replaces Jewish male circumcision as the sign of membership of the new covenant people of God. All are baptised men, woman, children, slaves, Jew or Gentile. The Body metaphor used by Paul in I Corinthians 12 to describe the way the Church is to function explains that while we are all equal and interdependent members of the body we have different functions, roles and gifts.
For the first 300 years of the Churches mission this was an overwhelmingly powerful and attractive truth to the ordinary people of the highly stratified, unequal, oppressive and patriarchal pagan culture of the first century. It was only later in the Churches history that this truth was diminished and compromised by the Churches adoption of old cultural forces. The recovery of this truth and its practical application in the contemporary Church has been widely welcomed. There are some exceptions but even these are modified from the immediate past practice.(EG: Almost all Protestant denominations have women as well as men as ordained ministers)
2. Stage two: The decriminalisation of homosexuality and Gay rights.
This took place only 35 years ago in the state of Victoria. This has been followed by a campaign to remove social discrimination against same sex attracted people. This campaign continues today and its success has been significant and is generally accepted by the community at large.
Once again from a Christian standpoint, on the same basis as just mentioned above (Gal.3:27-28 etc.) there should be full acceptance of same sex attracted people in the Christian community. We are all equal before the Gospel of grace and we are all equally fallen and in need of redemption.
On the question of sexual intimacy and same sex attracted people, the N.T standard of behaviour expected should be the same as that expected of single heterosexual people – chastity. (The ‘Four key Biblical and theological points’ in the last section of the paper imply that Christian Marriage is not available to same sex attracted couples as it would contravene the Christian concept of marriage, being against both divine and natural law.)
3. Stage three: The still contentious and unresolved question of same sex marriage.
While our society is currently in the throes of this debate it seems that the general community is conflicted for three reasons: (a) they have generally accepted the principle of “mutual consent” as being the only requirement for sexual intimacy among adults whether heterosexual or gay and so to refuse formal same sex unions seems inconsistent! (b) Many non – Christian people still hold to a traditional view that ‘marriage’ is a term that should be reserved for the formal union of a man and a woman. (c) There is also a significant residual feeling that same sex marriage is ‘unnatural’, meaning that it goes against natural law. (There is a plausible opinion that says that the national plebiscite was opposed politically because it was feared that despite the polls it would fail.)
So for these reasons many in the non – Christian community are conflicted about this issue.
Among the Christian community there is strong support for the traditional view of marriage and retaining the current legislated definition of being between a man and a woman and I believe we should continue to argue for that and support that position politically. But there is also a feeling among some that in a post Christian and pluralist liberal democracy we should honour the views of a national plebiscite, should one ever approve same sex marriage, and not oppose civil unions of same sex couples. This would mean the Church preserving Christian marriage as a separate and distinct institution conducted in and by the Christian community with its own unique character, purpose, requirements and values. Consistency would also require us not to “bless same sex unions” as that would compromise our values and beliefs. This would of course be heavily criticised by the Gay community. At the same time we should resist any attempt by the state to compel our ministers as celebrants to formalise same sex unions. That would be a grave breach of a core democratic value of the separation of Church and state and freedom of religion.
4 . Stage four: The gender fluidity debate.
This is the stage we are currently entering. Gender fluidity as we have already observed is based on two ideas; a sharp distinction between sex and gender and the claim that our gender identity is not determined by our biology or the prevailing social construct of heterosexuality but by individual choice. This is illustrated with claims such as; ‘I am not necessarily what my body says I am…. I am not what you or society says I am……I will be what I say I am…… and I may change that decision from time to time’
You can see how this mood can be fuelled by current Western social trends toward an exaggerated or hyper individualism, where people accept few objective moral restraints or transcendent values restricting or directing their individual choice.

It is also important at this point to challenge the oft repeated phrase that ‘heterosexuality is just a social construct’. The idea of a social construct comes from a particular theory of the sociology of knowledge and been widely influential in sociology schools. It is based on a particular philosophical presupposition that hardly passes the common sense test, which is that reality only exists when we as members of society invent or create it and does not exist prior to its social invention. The Christian world view is entirely opposite to this presupposition. We believe reality exists objectively to us and is revealed to us by God.We aprehend it and discovered it and in that process we uncover its meaning and its purpose and also our own. This knowledge is then socially shared by us and through that process we develope our societies,our values and our cultures. So we understand that sexuality and gender and their relationship and purpose are a given part of the created order. The reality of the world, its meaning and purpose therefore are not determined by personal choice. But, of course how we as individuals respond to that God given given meaning and purpose is a moral and ethical choice for both the individual and community.Those chioces profoundly effect the kind of society we construct, for good or ill.
In relation to the oft repeated claim that heterosexuality is just a social construct we should observe three facts about the real world (i) At least 95% of the human population are heterosexual (ii) It is self- evident that this is the way we were designed and how the human race has continued (iii) It has been historically the overwhelmingly dominant social norm in all cultures since history has been recorded. Therefore to claim that it is merely a social construct and so is not innate, natural and normative is not an idea based in reality! (Further explanation of these ideas can be found in the footnotes. )
Having made this critical observation of the idea of gender as a social construction it is important to add that for various reasons which we do not entirely understand there is a small group of people for whom gender dysphoria is a real and challenging personal issue that requires recognition and a compassionate response.

Four observations about the conduct of the debate throughout the history of sexual politics:
1. Sexual politics is about identity and therefore is a very personal debate for us all.
Identity politics includes questions of race, religion, nationality and gender all very emotionally charged issues. Therefore they are almost always overheated and often extreme.
2. Because identity politics are very emotive they are easily ‘weaponised’. As it can seem that your opponent is attacking your identity he or she easily becomes your enemy and you are tempted to fight back strongly and to exaggerate or overgeneralise. “All white people are racist”…… “All Christians are homophobic”…… “All people of a particular ethnicity are lazy” …..” All men are violent”. Disagreement can be caricatured as “Hate speech”, etc. So debate becomes oppositional distrustful and alienating and logic and reason are discarded. Slogans take the place of reasoned argument, research and reliable facts.
3. The discussion and debate is also very vulnerable to those with an ideological political agenda whose political presupposition is that the existing established social, religious and moral order is oppressive and must be overthrown and radically replaced. What is to replace it is never made clear beyond slogans. This extreme left agenda influenced by ‘critical theory’ is not really interested in reasoned debate or the free exchange of ideas and different views or compromise. For them the liberal democratic process with its commitment to free speech and accommodation of difference is not something to be respected and enhanced but merely exploited and used as a means to an end – a social and value revolution! This means that their underlying attitude to free and open debate in the public square is one of strategic cynicism. Demonising the opposition by name calling and labelling is a favoured weapon of choice and in a saturated and superficial media space of 30 second grabs an effective tactic, this ‘weaponises’ and poisons the debate. Sadly a significant section of our current journalist class seem ill equipped by knowledge, wisdom or sufficient objectivity to seriously critique this exploitation of the media by the extreme left and minority politics.
4. Identity politics is also vulnerable to the current philosophical winds.
Currently these issues are being debated in an atmosphere of Post Modern relativism and hyper individualism where the supreme value is the unrestricted freedom of individual choice. This makes the debate vulnerable to those at the extreme end who wish to deny or reject any idea of objective truth and natural or transcendent moral values and who also refuse to accommodate in their preferred social policy those who do. To these people the traditional values around gender, sexual intimacy, family and marriage are just ‘social constructs’ that can be deconstructed and swept away. We should be very clear what is at stake here, it is the promotion of a radical social and cultural revolution. The average person is only vaguely aware, if at all, of these forces at work in the background and so raising them in public debate seems extreme or alarmist.
A Christian theological and pastoral approach.
1. The first thing that must be said is that there is much to repent of in the past. Homosexuals and people with gender dysphoria have often been treated poorly, rejected or felt unaccepted and marginalised.
2. Our attitude should reflect the grace and love of God that he extends to us all in Christ.
3. We need to acknowledge that within the transgender movement, with its various motives, there is a genuine plea for our society to be less cruel to people who are different to the majority.
4. We need to be in the forefront of protecting children from bullying and persecution at school and speaking out about adults being bullied over gender issues in their place of work.
5. We must also encourage hospitality in our churches and the ethos of friendship and community that many same sex people long for but have not always discovered.
As I mentioned earlier, since the 1960’s in Western culture there has been a focus on advancing and protecting the rights of individuals and minorities and enhancing the status of woman. This has generally made us a fairer and less cruel society. For example: People no longer have to stay in marriages that are brutal and violent.
: Women are now able to exercise their gifts and talents in leadership.
: Homosexuals are no longer criminalised and imprisoned.
: We are now alert to the secret abuse of children.
: Girls who are unmarried and become pregnant are no longer sent away to bear their child secretly and have them adopted out with little say.
In these ways we are now a more open, compassionate, less cruel and fairer society than we were when I grew up in the 1950’s.
But we are still a fallen and broken people who bear Gods image but an image scarred by our selfishness and sin. To quote Hugh McKay “Nothing is perfect, life is messy, relationships are complex, outcomes are uncertain, and people are frequently irrational!” And so the very honourable desire to pursue the rights and freedoms of the individual is easily distorted into a narcissistic narrow self- interest that is destructive to society, community and the family.
This is our great dilemma! It is an ancient dilemma that every culture has tried to manage in different ways. Our way till now has been the social contract of liberal democracy with its balance of individual freedom and social obligation, flavoured with Christian values. While far from perfect it has worked reasonably well. But the dilemma is heightened for us now by our excessive individualism and this affects every ethical and social policy debate we are engaged in.
From a Christian perspective what this means is that we must keep the need for human redemption and personal spiritual transformation at the forefront of our thinking and action. Social policy is important but it is not enough, the law can define what is good and bad for us, it can restrain us by threat of punishment but it cannot make us good, it cannot transform our hearts, only God and the Gospel can do that. We the people of God are the bearers and guardians of this message but we must embody it as well as proclaim it! We must demonstrate in our Christian communities the compassion and grace that God has extended to us if we are to convince a secular culture that they can only achieve and maintain a kind and fair society if they rediscover the spiritual source of the moral power to overcome our fallen self- interest.
Four key Biblical ideas we must reflect on if we are to respond faithfully to this issue:
1. For the Christian our primary identity is in Christ not in gender, race, nationality, role or gift.
‘You have put on the new self which is being renewed in the image of its creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, Barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.’ (Coloss. 3:10-11)
‘All of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal. 3:27-28)
To be in Christ is to adopt a new identity that derives from Christ and a humanity restored in the image of God, that lives by the values, hopes and promises of his Kingdom, not the kingdoms or the spirit of the age in which we now live and which are passing away.
2. Recognise the importance of our foundation story in Genesis 1-4. This makes very clear that we are made in God’s image as male and female and a key part of our purpose is procreation. (Gen. 1:27-28.) It also tells us that our ‘aloneness’ is now partly met in the one flesh union of the man and the woman (Gen 2:18, 24). This is the beginning and foundation of human community, which includes not only marriage but friendship and companionship with others and the numerous communal associations we form for our human enrichment and culture.
3. But our aloneness is only partly met in these ways because our relationships were also originally intended to include our relationship with God. To be fully human we must also live in union with God. Our foundation story tells us that we broke that union with God by our rejection of his authority (Gen 3). It is only when that relationship is restored and we are reconciled to God through Christ that we can rediscover our true human fulfilment.
4. Jesus reinforced the teaching of Genesis 1-3 in Mathew 19:1-12 when he was answering a question about marriage and divorce said :
4.“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ 5.and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 6.So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefor what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
7.“Why then,” they asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’
8.Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual morality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”…….
11.“Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12.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.”
These verses (especially vs 11-12) are pertinent to our discussion on gender, same sex attraction and gender dysphoria. Because we live in a broken world awaiting its renewal all our relationships are affected. There will be those who are unable to experience the love and intimacy of the marriage union described in Gen 2. for a range of reasons including those mentioned here by Jesus – some who were born that way,…. some made so by others and those who choose to live that way for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven.
For such people, while they may find significant love and companionship with friends and in Christian community, their union with God is particularly important.
There is in Paul’s letter to the Church at Ephesus in chp. 3:14-19 a beautiful prayer that the people there may know the riches and depth of God’s love for them, a love that surpasses all knowledge. The people at Ephesus were no doubt as varied in their human condition as most Christian congregations. This prayer is for everyone because none of our human relationships are perfect in this fallen world, but it is especially important for those who are unable to experience the union described in Gen 2, for the reasons Jesus gives or for other reasons like illness, disability, divorce or the death of a spouse that has removed that intimacy from them.
We do not live in a perfect world but a world in need of redemption and waiting for renewal and that is why we all need to embrace the call of Jesus to commit our lives to him and be renewed at the core of our being by his Holy Spirit
(This paper was first given on 31/7/16 at St. Hilary’s Kew /North Balwyn as part of a series entitled. “Fault Lines –Where Faith and Culture Collide.”)
[Note: A copy of this paper with all references and extensive footnotes is available if requested]

  • Peter Hooper

    Thank you Peter.

    A question under “A Christian theological and pastoral approach”, point 5.
    I don’t have any argument with what you say, but I would be interested in your views regarding GBLTI in leadership position, with especial reference to priests/pastors etc.