Theologically Gendered: Some Thoughts on How the Bible Bears Witness to Gender Minorities

A reflection by Lindsey

This week is Transgender Awareness Week. We make an intentional point of using the acronym “LGBT” throughout the blog. This post could be incredibly brave or needlessly foolhardy. I hope to bring some substantive questions to light by discussing some dominant narratives.

Before I get into my discussion, I’d like to say that I’ve pretty much spent my whole life on the “non-conforming” side of gender. Growing up, it wasn’t that big of deal. I’ve discovered ways to be comfortable in my own skin, even if some of those ways defy convention. Amidst an explosion of gender identity labels in LGBT circles, I don’t exactly know which words add value to my efforts in communicating my experiences more widely. There are some words that seem to fit better than others, but I have yet to discover any word other than “Lindsey” for which I am prepared to take on absolutely every commonly-held assertion about its meaning.

I’ve heard a lot of people assert that there’s no need to think critically about the experience of gender minorities. The dominant narrative goes something like, “In the beginning God created people male and female to be fruitful and multiply.” In this view, gender is understood principally in terms of reproductive sex. Since God has knit all people together in their mothers’ wombs where we are fearfully and wonderfully made, it’s absurd to suggest that God has made an error in something so important as one’s reproductive organs. Because genitals form in the womb as a part of the reproductive system, it seems fitting to gender a person at birth. In the rare cases of ambiguous genitals, doctors should do everything possible to ensure that the child has a reasonable chance at reproducing.

However, this “Back to Genesis” approach to gender identity overlooks a substantial Biblical witness about gender minorities. Even when Jesus affirms the Genesis narrative, he creates space for gender minorities:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

From where I sit, it’s clear that the Bible bears witness to the reality of gender minorities, but the Scriptures bear limited witness to how gender minorities should navigate present social realities.

For the sake of discussion, I’m going to talk about hair length because I view it as a culturally benign issue. I personally believe that hair style should be a nonissue in the 21st century. It’s socially acceptable for men and women to wear their hair at any length. I regard my hairstyle in much of the same way I regard my glasses. It’s a general part of my presentation to the world that I much prefer to keep static rather than dynamic. Recognizing 7th grade as an exception, my hairstyle has been the same since I was five years old. There are a lot of reasons my hairstyle suits me, and I’ll likely be wearing the same hairstyle for at least 20 years more.

But Christians can do strange things when their dominant views of gender get challenged. Some Christians go the route of talking with me about certain Scriptures addressing hair length. However, uncomfortable Christians will more frequently talk to me about the hazards of identifying with LGBT language and try to coach me back toward gender conforming behaviors. I don’t express myself the way that I do in an effort to attract attention. For me, my self-expression hinges upon having a desirable from-bed-to-door time in the morning, modestly covering my body, and staying thermally regulated. Social pressures to violate my own priorities can create intense discomfort. I hate feeling like I have to choose between other people being uncomfortable looking at my self-expression and me being completely detached from my own skin.

Many people on the transgender spectrum spend considerable time, energy, and effort trying to connect with their own bodies. Complete medical, legal, and social transition is often treated as the gold standard method for establishing this connection. However, I think that there’s some correlation between what’s socially acceptable relative to gender norms and when people feel like they have no choice but to transition completely. People socialized as men often confront narrower views of gender than people socialized as women. Nonetheless, if people push too hard against gender expectations, they are increasingly likely to experience violence. Anyone making the choice between beginning hormone replacement therapy and trying to survive increasingly hostile forms of violence needs to be treated with compassion. As we rapidly approach the Transgender Day of Remembrance, we ought to remember that far too many people have had to pay for their physical presentation with their lives. That level of violence is completely unacceptable and should be appalling to anyone claiming to follow Christ. For my part, I’m so grateful that growing up I had family and friends who robustly affirmed me as Lindsey where I was able to feel insulated from many of the social expectations around gender.

If we’re going to discuss gender thoughtfully as Christians, we should be mindful that Christ himself affirmed the presence of gender minorities. We would also do well to investigate ways where we needlessly use gender as a strong dividing line in society.

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7 thoughts on “Theologically Gendered: Some Thoughts on How the Bible Bears Witness to Gender Minorities

  1. I’m a bit confused by your reading of Matthew 19:11-12. I’ve never heard of anyone interpreting that passage as referring to an issue other than celibacy: as far as the Jews are concerned, everyone should be getting married and having children unless they’re physically unable, either from birth or due to castration. Jesus responds by affirming celibacy as an alternative. What makes you read this as referring to gender minorities, and can you cite some other texts that you believe also refer to them?

    • It seems to me that in Matthew 19, Jesus connects being male and female to joining necessarily in marriage (through using therefore). It seems like there are three broad general biblical categories of gender: male, female, and eunuch. From the text, it seems that Jesus indicates that eunuchs are far fewer in number than males and females, placing eunuchs in the minority. Therefore, the term eunuch encompasses many different kinds of gender minorities. Jesus indicates that there are 3 ways to understand the eunuch experience where some people are born eunuchs, others are made eunuchs and still others make themselves eunuchs. I think that Christ speaks to gender and vocation in this passage because it’s exceptionally odd to suggest that those who make themselves eunuchs do so exclusively through castrating themselves.

      • Many ancient and non-Western societies have had different understandings of gender than we do today. In particular, they may not always have felt that gender and sexuality were independent of each other.

        A site that discusses this, with reference to Matthew 19, is Born Eunuchs:
        http://www.well.com/user/aquarius/index.htm

        Many pre-modern Muslim cultures had ideas of gender and sexuality that were very similar to what this site describes, so it’s something I’ve looked into a bit.

        • Thanks for sharing Laura. I know that many people have explored what it meant to be born a eunuch. For my part, it can always be questionable to superimpose one culture’s structures on another culture’s structures. I personally like to call attention to Jesus in Matthew 19 because it seems to at least introduce the possibility that modern Christians don’t need to enforce a strict gender binary to be faithful to Scripture.

  2. Do you know anything about traditional Christian interpretation of the bit about the three kinds of eunuchs? I’ve been curious about it for a bit, and have tried to look into it a little.

    It seems obvious that the “eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men” correspond to the usual modern conception of eunuchs.

    It looks like some early Christian writers (I don’t have the references on hand but could dig them up) understood “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” as basically equivalent to what we’d call voluntary celibates (and some of them seem to use words for “virginity” and “eunuchhood” to express the concept of celibacy).

    But in my brief look around the topic, I didn’t see any early Christian discussion of “eunuchs who have been so from birth”.

    • A further thought about the passage:
      It’s interesting to note the order of the three kinds mentioned: “born”, “made by men”, “for the kingdom of heaven”. It seems like Jesus is introducing the last concept. He’s clearly not introducing the concept of eunuchs “made by men”. Given the order, it seems plausible that he’s mentioning two familiar kinds of eunuchs and then adding an unfamiliar one.

      If this is true, I’d expect to see other ancient references to people born eunuchs as well as people who have been made eunuchs. I don’t know if such references exist, but if they do, I’d like to see them.

    • I think these questions are valid but will likely always find historically speculative answers. I do know that early church councils condemned the practice of Christian castration. However, there’s a mixed historic witness as to whether people castrated themselves to become eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom or because they deemed their sexual organ caused them to “stumble” so it was better to cut it off.

      I might try to do some digging into early Christian discussion of eunuchs who have been so from birth. My preliminary efforts have been more or less that eunuchs from birth get lumped together with eunuchs created by man. For example, I can’t find any particularly compelling discussion either way of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. It seems to be sufficient to say that the person is a eunuch.

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