How do we make sense of gender in today’s culture?Written by Jon Mair
What's inside this article
The word “gender” can cause some pretty strong reactions in today’s culture. With the increasing push to accommodate varying expressions of gender, it can be hard to know what to think or how to respond when the topic is raised.
I’ll admit when I first heard about transgenderism years ago, I couldn’t understand why it was an issue. As I’ve learned more and met people dealing with gender dysphoria, I’ve begun to understand this diverse topic a bit more and my compassion has grown for those dealing with it.
So, what forms our gender identity? First, we need to define some terms. Sex is the first word we need to define and it refers to the biological anatomy of being male or female. Gender on the other hand is less tangible and often refers to non-biological aspects of being male or female, the expression of our sex. This is where the confusion often comes into the discussion because sex and gender have typically been used interchangeably despite differences in their meaning. While sex is important to understanding gender, they are not synonymous terms.
With these definitions in mind, gender identity is typically formed through a variety of factors, including personality, internal sense of self and, to a large extent, cultural expectation. Often, we use the terms masculine and feminine to label these expressions; for example, being tough and strong is masculine or pink is a feminine colour. The elements of gender identity are often on a spectrum, leaving a lot of room for grey, despite historically trying to be black and white about gender.
When we look at the Bible there isn’t a lot of guidance about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. For instance, as biblical scholar and author Preston Sprinkle asks, “Was David being a man when he was killing Goliath, or when he was playing his harp and writing poetry while his brothers were off at war?” In our modern culture we’ve typically associated things like killing Goliath with being masculine, while playing the harp and writing poetry would be seen as more feminine. Preston goes on to say, “God’s expectations for gender expression are quite flexible. Most modern assumptions and stereotypes about what it means to be a man or woman are not endorsed by the Bible.”
Male and female
While there is flexibility in the Bible regarding our gender expression, there is a strong view of humanity’s creation with binary sex differences. God created us as male and female, reflecting his image in both otherness of two sexes and yet sameness as human beings. The bodily difference between men and women is important and God creates each one of us to take on one of these two realities. Jesus reaffirms God’s creation intent in Matthew 19:4 when he says, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female.”
It’s important that we don’t lose sight of God’s intention in creation when we are discussing the topic of gender. Even in the resurrection the Bible seems to indicate that sex differences will continue. When Jesus appeared after the resurrection in his glorified body there is no indication that he stopped being male. Preston Sprinkle says the following: “The sexed body itself is essential to personhood and an integral means through which we reflect God’s image, both in our pre-fall state and in our future resurrected existence. Scripture does not seem to allow for – and in a few places explicitly prohibits – identifying as a sex or gender that’s different from your biological sex.”
Engaging in conversations with compassion
How then do we engage in conversations about gender dysphoria? First of all, we need to have compassion recognizing that these are real feelings people are experiencing. In many cases these feelings start when a person is a child and they may not be able to fully express what they’re feeling. We need to be willing to have conversations and be there for the long haul as they process how they feel. As we do this, we need to make sure we convey that being male or female can be expressed in many different ways. This might involve breaking down cultural stereotypes that are reinforcing the gender confusion.
The good news when it comes to gender dysphoria in children, according to researchers Drs. Mark Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky, is that studies are showing that “as high as 75 to 80 per cent (or more) of children who experience gender dysphoria find that this dysphoria eventually resolves on its own; and older teens whose gender dysphoria has resolved on its own often report that the experience of puberty helped them consolidate their gender identity in keeping with their biological sex.”
With the prevalence of “gender options” in our culture it continues to be a complicated topic among young people. The important thing to remember is that a lot of our conceptions of gender come from cultural stereotypes and there is a lot more flexibility in what it means to be male or female, while maintaining a biblical view of sex and gender.
If you would like to explore this topic further with one of our in-house counsellors, please call 1.800.661.9800 Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT to schedule a free one-time phone counselling consultation. As a parent, you can see additional resources below.
© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox