What is Gender?
by Mike Stanczak on October 01, 2021
If you were here in early Fall, you know that we broached the topic of gender in the sermon. [Listen to the sermon again here...] I focused on inching toward a biblical vision of masculinity and femininity by drawing out the implications of five kinds of passages. Scripture talks about sin, virtue, upbringing, roles, and social structure in a gendered way. The first conclusion to take from this is that manhood and womanhood must be of at least passing importance to God. Secondly, there must be a way for us to embody manhood and womanhood in our time.
There was much that the sermon did not cover, and it still clocked in at about 40 minutes. I’d like to add a couple on gender comments here, in the hopes that they will help us see what might have been obvious to previous generations.
The biggest obstacle to talking about gender in our time is that no one knows exactly what it is, and that leads to two common errors. First, the growing preference is to think of gender as a social construct. Gender, in this view, is about gender identity, which may or may not match a person's biological sex. In other words, an increasingly popular view of gender identity means that a person who is biologically male can have a gender identity that is also male (cisgender), a gender identity that is female (transgender), or another gender identity altogether (nonbinary).
Advocates of this view would say that gender is not a biological destiny, and thus gender is not limited to a binary between man and woman. A person could identify with any number of genders, even possibly minting a new name to describe their own. The reason for this is that gender describes the way a person experiences the aggregate of their attractions, sexuality, body, etc. Therefore there could conceivably be as many genders as there are people, if each person felt there was not a sufficient gender identity on offer already.
From this point of view, the body does not determine gender, so biological sex is only one factor of many that guides a person toward a particular gender expression. This view supports the choices that some people make when they feel so strongly about a particular gender expression that they seek hormones and/or surgeries to change their body to accommodate their felt experience of gender.
The reasons many people are persuaded by this view are complicated, but Carl Trueman has written an excellent book entitled The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self addressing just that question: how did we arrive at the point where the statement “I am a man in a woman’s body” has become coherent to us? For our purposes here, all I want to point out is that modern activists for gender ideology see gender as a cultural reality, and therefore mutable. In other words, gender is malleable, ever changing, fluid. If gender is ultimately a matter of cultural expression, then limiting gender by the number of biological sexes is arbitrary.
So the formula for this point of view might go “Gender is cultural, therefore it is mutable.”
Reacting against this are groups that flip the formula: “Gender is immutable (unchanging), and therefore it is not cultural.”
Proponents of this second view recognize only two genders, male and female, but that is because they would prefer to collapse the concept of gender into the concept of biological sex entirely. In this approach, both gender and sex refer to a person born with certain genitals. There are plenty of reasons to prefer this second viewpoint, not least of which is that it doesn't lead to the gender buffet that the other view inevitably implies.
Although there are problems with this second view which we will address shortly, it is true that gender and sex must be linked intrinsically.
Numerous studies have revealed consistent, clear distinctions between men and women that include differing chromosomes, skeletal structure, muscular development, hormone levels, vocal pitch, hearing, odor detection, spatial abilities, and color recognition. But wait - there’s more!
The differences between the sexes are testified to across disciplines. In philosophy, Edith Stein and Dietrich von Hildebrand separately point out the same phenomenon: women integrate, men differentiate. In other words, women tend to approach a problem holistically, while men tend to hone a specialized skill which they bring to bear on the same problem. In psychology, Judith M. Bardwick writes in the Psychology of Women “The male mind discriminates, analyzes, separates and refines. The feminine mind knows relatedness, has an intuitive perception of feeling, has a tendency to unite rather than separate.”
Anthropologist and biologist F.J.J. Buyentdijk points out that men and women tend to be oriented toward goals in the case of men, personal needs in the case of women. This isn’t a value judgment but instead a description of how men and women tend to overcome even the same problems. Stephen B. Clark summarizes it like this in Men and Women in Christ: “The male goal orientation pattern will shape and strengthen the way men care for others’ needs…Women will bring their personal need orientation into the way they set goals.”
These differences in men and women orient them naturally toward certain divisions of labor and certain roles in society. The tendencies are so powerful that even in communities such as the Kibbutzim, which was a small, voluntary socialist commune in Israel that rejected gender roles to the extent that the raising of children was outsourced to childcare facilities. Women of the Kibbutzim opted into this practice and were not coerced into any of the measures agreed upon by the group, but researchers Lionel Tiger and Joseph Shepher showed that gendered social structure reasserted itself among them over time in more ways than one. I will mention only that by the time of their study, the women of the commune had pressured the leadership into giving them back the task of raising their own kids.
These findings tell us that gender is not malleable, but is written into the deep grain of our humanity. As a result, some people end up subscribing to this second view, which insists that gender is not cultural at all. Gender and sex, they say, are two words that mean the same thing. While Christians should heartily affirm the reality of gender differences, that doesn’t mean there is nothing cultural to gender at all.
Collapsing gender into biological sex robs us of a category by which to talk about manhood and womanhood. If there is nothing more to being a woman than being biologically female, then femininity is meaningless and there really isn’t any reason why we should respect certain behaviors of a woman as becoming her woman-ness any more than we should respect certain behaviors of a man as becoming his man-ness. We’re left with the impression that a woman nursing children is no more feminine than a woman abandoning them, or a man running courageously into the battle is no more manly than the one running from it.
Christians have the option of a third view. What we should be looking for is a definition of gender that grounds it in the biological sexes God created but also includes a cultural element. Thus, gender is the way we express the meaning of our sex. Our bodies, in the words of one pastor, have a calling. Those callings, manhood and womanhood, come with our bodies.
At times, the meaning of our bodies will be expressed in concrete, culturally unchanging ways. Men sire children, women bear them. In other ways, the meaning of our bodies will be expressed in culturally conditioned ways. For example, wearing an open garment over the legs (a skirt) in contemporary U.S. culture is unmistakably feminine (unless it's a kilt). In other cultures and other times, that would not have been true. Jesus did not wear pants, nor did any of the men of his time, so the presence of pants and skirts was not significant in terms of manhood and womanhood in Jesus' time. It is now. Wearing a skirt is a cultural expression, yes, but it isn’t meaningless. A man wearing a ballgown in our time is saying something about his relationship to his body’s calling. He is mocking it, rejecting it, subverting it, or something else, but embracing it he is not.
Gender is culturally expressed, but that doesn’t mean it’s all up for grabs. And so, “Gender is both immutable and cultural.” It is the way we express the meaning of our sex.
Christian men and women should seek to embrace the meaning of their bodies. This does not mean machismo in men or dolled up femininity in women. It means leaning into Scripture to see what it really means to be masculine and feminine.
In the sermon on gender, I suggested that every man is called to be a father and a king, and every woman a mother and a queen. This is true regardless if they are biological parents or literal rulers. These are archetypes that are meant to guide us to deep truths about ourselves. Every man is made to go forth and bring back, to bring order and stand in the gap, to put an arm around the shoulder of those who must be brought up, and to make use of strength in favor of weakness. Every woman is made to make glorious what is brought in, to see the wholeness of things and affirm their distinctiveness, to make homes out of houses, to bear life.
He exists to form and her to fill. He turns outward past the boundaries and she establishes a place within. He sets himself apart by his responsibility and she by her responsiveness.
Are these generalizations? Yes. Do they say everything that must be said? No. Should we mock them? Only at our peril, though we might laugh at ourselves. There is humor in a people who must relearn the obvious. Maybe we will find better ways of expressing masculinity and femininity one day, but we must begin by seeing what, from the beginning of human history, was not only self-evident, but beautiful.