Sex in the rWorld

Is it possible to be a “gay Christian?”  For some, choosing to follow Jesus does not immediately produce the results they might expect.  Even Paul admitted that after following Jesus, he still struggled with ongoing sin.  “I have the desire to do what is right,” he said, “but not the ability to carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18b-19).

Sexual orientation, as we’ve defined it, does not fit neatly into the categories of “innate” or “personal choice.”  Yet homosexual behavior—like all sexual brokenness—is a personal choice and may warrant repentance.  So what about those who follow Jesus and have surrendered their sexual behavior to God.  What then?  Can we expect God to change their sexual orientation?  If they continue to experience same-sex attraction, are they really true Christians?

To understand this, we’ll need to look at the idea of “salvation” a bit differently.  The Bible doesn’t see “salvation” as simply as being “saved” or “unsaved.”  Instead faith is something that evolves and deepens as we are scraped raw by the rough edges of time and experience.  It’s better to think of salvation as having a past, present, and future component. We’ll find such an idea contained in the writings of John, one of Jesus’ closest personal followers.


Sexual sin leaves us feeling dirty.  Earlier John told the readers of his letter that when we “confess our sins [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  The cross has such enormous weight for the Christian that it can’t be supported by any one idea.  So we might speak of the forgiveness that comes from Christ paying the debt of my sin.  We might speak of the way we are washed clean through the redemptive work of God.  In John’s letter, he emphasizes what the cross accomplished: to be not only forgiven, but to be given a new identity—adopted as God’s children.  “Beloved,” he writes, “we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared…” (1 John 3:2a).

Sexual sin—unlike most other types of sin—uniquely affects our core identity.  It’s easy to assume that our sexual orientation is who we really are.  How can we repent of something so fundamental?  The good news of the gospel is that in Christ we receive new identities as God’s children.

This is crucial.  It means that in order to be a Christian, nothing—nothing—is required of us except faith.  Christianity says that we are accepted before God not by the strength of our faith, but by the object of our faith.  The blood of Christ covers our sin and guarantees our adoption into God’s family—regardless of our sexual orientation.


Secondly, John tells his readers that “we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2b).  He’s referring, of course, to the promised return of Jesus.  At that time, all things will be set right again.  Even our bodies will be raised from the dead and rendered perfect—no longer subject to the curse of sin or death (1 Corinthians 15:44-47).

What does this mean for those who struggle with same-sex attraction?  It means that there will be a day when our bodies no longer experience these kinds of struggles.  We will be made new and perfect.  So the things you and I battle against now will one day be completely eradicated at the final victory of God’s renewed creation.


Finally, John deals with what happens between our past forgiveness and our future glorification.  “Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).  Christianity uses the word “sanctification” to refer to the process of becoming more like Jesus.  We must understand that while forgiveness and future glorification are one-time events, sanctification is a process that takes a lifetime.

This means that for those experiencing same-sex attraction, there are three options:

  • No progress—What’s the big deal?

There will, of course, be those who still see no problem with their sexual orientation—that as long as they are sincere in their love God will not judge them.  In other words, they choose to follow Jesus, but also choose to engage in homosexual behavior.  What then?

We must say two things.  First, their behavior does nothing to change God’s acceptance of them, because their sins remain covered by the blood of Jesus.  But second, by refusing repentance, they have turned away from a life of active Christian growth.  So while it may still be possible to be a “gay Christian,” no one can be a maturing Christian so long as they persist in a sinful lifestyle.

  • Healing

Some may be able to “heal” from their same-sex attraction.  Granted, so-called “reparative therapy” has gotten bad press and caricatured as some sort of hard-nosed “pray out the gay” torture-fest.  But advances in understanding have led to some surprising success.  For example, in a 1997 study, 18% of participants changed from being “exclusively homosexual” to “exclusively heterosexual” as a result of therapy.  An additional 17% described themselves as “almost entirely heterosexual.”[1]

One example comes to us in an article in The New York Times a few years ago. After following Jesus, Michael Glatze became wholly healed of his same-sex attraction.  He tells his interviewer: “God loves you more than any dude will ever love you…Don’t put your faith in some man…That’s what we do when we’re stuck in the gay identity, when we’re stuck in that cave.  We go from guy to guy, looking for someone to love us and make us feel O.K., but God is so much better than all the other masters out there.”[2]

  • Celibacy

Still, there may be others who despite their best efforts—or even the efforts of professionals—cannot seem to eradicate their same-sex attraction.  What then?  In this case, these individuals are left to a life of celibacy.

Let’s be clear: a life of celibacy is a harsh sentence to endure.  If Christianity weren’t true, this level of self-denial would seem inhumane.  But if the resurrection truly happened, if we are promised something better in our future, then we may find joy even in the struggle of self-denial, despite the loneliness and heartache it surely brings. Writing for The Atlantic, Eve Tushnet writes of her own personal struggle with same-sex attraction

“By leading lives of fruitful, creative love, we can offer proof that sexual restraint isn’t a death sentence (or an especially boring form of masochism). Celibacy can offer some of us radical freedom to serve others. While this approach isn’t for everyone, there were times when I had much more time, space, and energy to give to people in need than my friends who were juggling marriage and parenting along with all their other commitments. …Moreover, celibate gay Christians can offer proof that friendship can be real love, and deserves the same honor as any other form of lovingkindness, caretaking and devotion.”[3]


At this point, it’s doubtful that we can truly return to the tWorld—the world of tradition.  So instead we place our hope in the rWorld—the world of relationship, the world shaped by the gospel of Jesus Christ.  You see, Christians have been unfortunately guilty of making sexual purity too great a goal in our congregations.  We distribute “purity rings” to our young people, inviting them to take “abstinence pledges” and encouraging them to “save themselves for marriage.”  And ironically our insistence on abstinence has done little to dampen the prevalence of pre-marital sex.

It’s time to stop demanding that our young people save themselves for marriage.  Why?  Because such language betrays our unspoken idol of marital purity.  We inadvertently say: “If you stay pure, God will reward you with a really great spouse.”  As if this is the greatest prize we have to offer our youth: really great sex.  Thanks, but we can find that just about anywhere these days.  It’s time to stop telling young people to stay pure in hopes of future reward.  It’s time to start telling them to stay pure because God is your reward.  The gospel is not a message of being “good”—even through sexual purity—and then God rewards you with an easy life.  No; the gospel says that by the grace of God I get him and he is enough regardless of my circumstances, my temptations and my sexual identity.

This is also why we must be careful with our language.  The phrase “gay Christian” is unhelpful.  Why?  Because our identity in the gospel is bigger than our identity as straight or gay.  Instead, there are Christians who struggle with their sexual orientation, who press in to the grace of God in steady reliance on his promises of hope and healing.

We’ll conclude with the story of Rosaria Butterfield, a leftist lesbian professor who began reading the Bible in the hopes of discrediting the Christian right.  But instead of finding ammunition, she instead found a Savior:

“I continued reading the Bible, all the while fighting the idea that it was inspired. But the Bible got to be bigger inside me than I. It overflowed into my world. I fought against it with all my might. Then, one Sunday morning, I rose from the bed of my lesbian lover, and an hour later sat in a pew at the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church. Conspicuous with my butch haircut, I reminded myself that I came to meet God, not fit in. The image that came in like waves, of me and everyone I loved suffering in hell, vomited into my consciousness and gripped me in its teeth….Then, one ordinary day, I came to Jesus, openhanded and naked. … And I was a broken mess. Conversion was a train wreck. I did not want to lose everything that I loved. But the voice of God sang a sanguine love song in the rubble of my world. I weakly believed that if Jesus could conquer death, he could make right my world.”[4]



[1] “The Results of the 1997 NARTH Survey on Change,” quoted in Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, p. 421

[2] Benoit Deizet-Lewis, “My Ex-Gay Friend,” The New York Times, June 16, 2011,

[3] Eve Tushnet, “I’m Gay, But I’m Not Switching to a Church that Supports Gay Marriage,” The Atlantic, May 30, 2013.

[4] Rosaria Butterfield, “My Train Wreck Conversion,” February 7, 2013,


Sex in the iWorld (Part 2)

If lust is the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, what might we say about same-sex couples?  Even if we agree that some sexual behaviors are unhealthy or immoral, who could possibly throw rocks at a same-sex couple living in a committed relationship?


To help us frame our discussion, we’ll start by examining some of our terms.  It’s become more common to speak of one’s “sexual orientation,” which the American Psychological Association defines as “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions.” [1]  These attractions may be to the opposite sex (heterosexuality), the same sex (homosexuality), or both sexes (bisexuality).  However, contemporary psychology suggests that “for some people, sexual orientation is continuous and fixed throughout their lives.  For others, sexual orientation may be fluid and change over time.” [2]  Therefore human sexuality tends to be seen as something of a spectrum:

Thus, terms such as “homosexual” or “heterosexual” are best seen as classifying broad patterns of behavior.  Many see sexual orientation as evolving with age and time, though most would agree that one’s orientation becomes most clearly defined during adolescence.

What causes homosexual orientation?  Is it a choice?  Or are people simply “born this way?”  Contemporary research has pointed to a variety of biological, psychological, and social factors.  No factor seems dominant, and each of these factors is hotly debated.  It may therefore be appropriate to speak of factors that influence rather than actually cause sexual orientation.  This also means that sexual orientation defies simplistic explanations to genetics or to personal choice.

How might Christianity understand these ideas?  Traditional Christianity would maintain that homosexuality represents a violation of God’s design.  But if sexual orientation is not a simple matter of personal choice, how might we understand this?  In James’ letter to early Christians, he warns that a person “is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin” (James 1:15-16).  If we read this carefully, James labels some desires as “evil,” but he still sees desire as separate from actual “sin.”  Thus it may be appropriate to look at establish a distinction between sexual orientation and sexual behavior. 

  • Sexual orientation refers to the broad pattern of our sexual desires
  • Sexual behavior refers to the acting out of our sexual orientation

Let’s make no mistake: sexual brokenness is not reserved for homosexuality.  As we saw earlier, the Bible labels many forms of sexuality as sinful.  But among them is homosexuality—therefore same-sex sexual behavior is unequivocally sinful and wrong.

In the tWorld—the world of tradition—this conclusion would have generated almost no objection.  But in the iWorld—the world of the individual—we might find ourselves faced with many objections.  Paul endured something of this when he wrote a letter to the over-sexualized culture of Corinth.  Apparently some of the early Christians had made a habit of indulging their desires with local prostitutes.  Paul records that when challenged, they responded with two principle arguments: (1) “all things are lawful” (1 Corinthians 6:12) and (2) “food is for the stomach and the stomach for food” (1 Corinthians 6:13).  We’ll use these to help frame some similar arguments about sexuality in the present day.


If “all things are lawful,” then it means that we’ve removed any absolute measure of what’s right and wrong.  Indeed, if you recall, Dale Kuehne had suggested that sexual morals in the iWorld could be reduced to the following:

  1. One may not criticize someone else’s life choices or behavior.
  2. One may not behave in a manner that coerces or causes harm to others.
  3. One may not engage in a sexual relationship with someone without his or her consent.[3]

In recent years, third-wave feminists have taken to adopting the phrase “consent culture” as a counter to the so-called “rape culture” that victimizes women.  Consent has become something of the final sexual boundary for today’s society.  So one might wonder: “who should judge what goes on in the privacy of a person’s bedroom?”  “What goes on between two consenting adults is no one’s business but their own.”  To this we might see several things:

  • “Consent” does little to truly liberate women

First, a word on language. The reason I hate the phrase “consent culture” is because it limits sex to only what is permissible.  Yes; rape is a horrible blight on human societies, but I strain to understand how we empower women by simply making them gatekeepers to male libido.  Mere consent fails to celebrate the beauty of human sexuality.

  • Sexuality is never private

Second, we must remember that sexuality is at least part of the family unit.  It’s how we reproduce; it’s partly what sustains a marital bond.  For these reasons, sex is never wholly private.  Our sexual relationships form the family structures and institutions that shape contemporary society.  So, for instance, if Johnny goes to his first-grade classroom, he might discover that his teacher mentions his “partner” or his “husband.”  Sexual orientation doesn’t have to work hard to become public—who can go for very long without mentioning their spouse?  So no; sex is never private.  We may debate about whether or not this is good or bad for society, but what we can’t say is that it will have a neutral effect on society.

  • Freedom is unsustainable

Finally, freedom of this nature is simply unsustainable.  True, values work on something of a sliding scale.  In Superfreakonomics, Levitt and Dubner point out that prostitutes once charged more for acts regarded as “taboo.”  Yet these acts are now among the least expensive.  The formerly shocking becomes the present norm.  We’re like the dwarves from J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels.  They delved deeply, looking for treasure.  The problem is that they “dug too greedily and too deep.”  They awoke a “Balrog,” a foul, unearthly creature impervious to traditional assault.  Why would we assume that same-sex marriage is the full extent of our sexual freedom?  After all, the whole basis is that marriage is a human invention and subject to re-inventing.  Why are we not also free to re-invent our values with regard to child pornography?  Rape?  Keep in mind that historically speaking, there have been societies that have willingly embraced and endorsed both of these behaviors.  So if morality is merely the reflection of a society, then we have no way of drawing absolute boundaries.


Paul’s audience would also have said that “food is for the stomach”—meaning that our sexual appetites are no different than our physical hunger.  We might say that if sex is “only natural,” then why stand in the way of nature?  We can say several things.

  • Unknown cause of sexual orientation

First, we need to observe that there is no absolute “cause” of sexual orientation.  The fabled “gay gene” has yet to be discovered.[4]  One important study evaluated twins that had been raised apart.  If one twin identified as gay, the other twin did not—indicating a clear lack of genetic influence. While it would be an unhelpful stretch to assume that this means sexual orientation is an actual choice, we can’t say that homosexuality has a conclusive biological origin.  In fact, many would point toward environmental and social factors.[5]

  • What’s natural isn’t necessarily healthy

Secondly, even if we could conclusively identify a “natural” basis for sexual orientation, we mustn’t confuse “natural” with “healthy.”  We romanticize “natural” foods—forgetting that while apples may be “natural,” so is cyanide.  One pair of historians suggests that this owes to the fact that since the days of Aristotle, we’ve been assuming that “natural” is another word for “objective”—that is that what’s natural is neutral.[6]   But nature can’t be looked to as an ethical framework.  Nature just is.  Christianity would even say that nature—though created “good” by God—now experiences Eden’s curse.  So just as the ground would produce “thorns and thistles,” so too might our DNA, our neurobiology, everything, be “subject to futility” (Romans 8:20).  Christianity would therefore say that some things may be natural but fall outside of God’s original design—things such as cancer, genetic disease, etc.

  • Many natural behaviors in animals are morally objectionable in humans

In 2000, Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer wrote a book called A Natural History of Rape.  In this controversial book, they reasoned that rape may have an evolutionary advantage.  After all, in the world of nature, it doesn’t require “consent” for genes to be passed along.  Many species of animals do this—ranging from species of insects to even some higher-order primates.  True, such behavior isn’t typical—even animals are selective of their mates—but it remains a part of the natural world.  So even though we can observed examples of homosexual behavior in animal species, we must remember that this doesn’t mean that such behavior warrants our blessing.  Because if nature is our only standard, we are left with the unsettling conclusion that rape is “natural.”  Thankfully, we strenuously object to sexual assault in all its forms—but as Christians we do so because both men and women bear the image of God, and therefore cannot be dehumanized as victim and victimizer.


It’s important to remember that everyone is—in every possible way—horrifically broken.  The reformers of centuries past used the phrase “total depravity” to describe mankind.  This means that there’s not a single part of our lives untouched by the curse of sin.  We’re broken.  So on the one hand, it would be wrong to suggest that homosexual brokenness was somehow worse than heterosexual brokenness—or from any of the sins you and I may struggle with.  On the other hand, it would be wrong to think that any of us gets to come to Jesus and walk away unchallenged and unchanged.  The gospel says that we are more than our sin, more than our sexuality, more than our labels.  Tomorrow we’ll look at how the gospel helps us navigate the complex relationship between orientation and behavior.


[1] “Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality,”


[3] Dale S. Kuehne, Sex and the iWorld: Rethinking Relationships beyond an Age of Individualism., p. 71.

[4] Richard Horton, “Is Homosexuality Inherited?”

[5] See Richard Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice for a list of relevant (and extensive) studies.

[6] Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, p. 110.

Sex in the iWorld (Part 1)

Sex is something of a paradox: the thing we think we most want is also the thing we most frequently regret.  In the tWorld, the world of tradition, sex helps men and women to flourish as a part of God’s good and perfect design. But in Genesis 3, the stench of individualism came to cloud the sweet fragrance of God’s creation.  “Did God really say…?” the serpent asked the woman.  And though while the question at hand was one of forbidden fruit, the broader consequence was to plant doubt in the minds of men and women—as well as the wonder that maybe God was withholding something from them.

This, we’ve said, was the birth of the “iWorld,” the world of the individual.  So while sex is joyous when it is seen in light of procreation, marital unity, and physical pleasure, danger erupts when we separate physical pleasure from the broader understanding of human sexuality.  In his recent book called Divine Sex, Jonathan Grant sees the consequence of the sexual revolution resulted in separating sex from every anchor of traditional culture:[1]

  • The separation of sex from procreation—because birth control enables us to enjoy the benefits of sex without the responsibility of family
  • The separation of sex from marriage—because we can now enjoy sex without needing the commitment of marriage
  • The separation of sex from partnership—because one-night-stands are a part of the human experience
  • The separation of sex from another person—because pornography and masturbation render sexual activity largely private
  • The separation of sex from our own bodies—because now even definitions of “male” and “female” (and the way these categories experience sexuality) is up to the individual to determine

In short, we’ve separated the benefits of sex from the responsibilities that come with it—or, more simply, we’ve surrendered the beauty of God’s design on the altar of personal satisfaction.

Christianity has historically called this “lust,” and—similar to Grant’s categories above—it covers not only physical acts but also mental fantasy as well, what Jesus called “adultery in the heart” (Matthew 5:28).  Now, if you don’t have a background in church, you may be tempted to say: “So what?  We’re only human.  Surely we don’t need such prudish commitments to ‘purity’ in modern society.”  But if we take a moment to examine this issue, we’ll find that perhaps Biblical values aren’t as far off the mark as we might assume…


Some years ago a group of university professors was tasked with writing a series of books on the so-called “seven deadly sins.”  Simon Blackburn, professor at Harvard University, received the task of writing about “lust.”  Lust, he says, is “the enthusiastic desire, the desire that infuses the body, for sexual activity and its pleasures for their own sake.”[2]  This really isn’t so far from what we’ve been saying above: that lust is the elevation of pleasure over other commitments.  The problem, however, is that while Blackburn admits that lust can be an unhealthy, ruling force, indulging in lust now and again is simply part of the human experience.

But why?  In some ways, this is a strange merger of two competing concepts: on the one hand, we see ourselves as ruled by animal instinct.  At the same time, our society remains colored by the perspective of nineteenth-century romanticism, and sees virtue as related to the sincerity of our devotion.

The Bible has a variety of ways of understanding the idea of “lust.”  Chief among them might be the Greek term porneia.  We usually translate the word as something like “sexual immorality,” but the term really refers to any sexual expression outside God’s design for heterosexual marriage.  You might even recognize porneia as forming the ancient root of the word “pornography.”  In the Bible, we find the term referring to:

  • Adultery (Revelation 9:21; 14:8; 17:2, 4; 18:3; 19:2)
  • Homosexuality (Romans 1:26-29)
  • Incest (1 Corinthians 5:1)
  • Pre-marital sex (1 Corinthians 7:2)
  • Bestiality (Leviticus 18:23)

But wait, you might ask—aren’t these merely extreme examples?  What’s wrong with sexual desire?  The short answer is nothing at all.  In his novel The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis suggests that the devil cannot create a single form of pleasure.  Instead the devil must tempt us to indulge our desires “in the wrong ways, at the wrong times, or in the wrong degrees.”[3]  In other words, sexual desire isn’t the same as porneia or sexual immorality.  Sexual immorality comes from being ruled by desire.

For instance, when Paul writes to the Christians in the city of Ephesus, he reminds them that before their lives were overhauled by God they “lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (Ephesians 2:3).  Here Paul uses a different Greek word: epithimiai, which refers to “desires”—especially of an extreme type.  One Christian psychologist sees it this way:

“The tenth commandment [against ‘coveting,’ which is idolatrous, inordinate desire for something] also…makes sin ‘psychodynamic.’ It lays bares the grasping and demanding nature of the human heart…the [New Testament] merges the concept of idolatry and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires…for lust, demandingness, craving and yearning are specifically termed ‘idolatry’ (Eph.5:5 and Colossians 3:5).”[4]

In the iWorld, therefore, our gravest mistake is not merely the pursuit of sex—but the substitution of sex for God, as though sex were worthy of our sustained devotion and worship.


But wait, you might object, perhaps this is consistent with Christian teachings on sex, but aren’t these culturally conditioned?  After all, if our morals—including sexual morals—are the inventions of culture, are we not free to reinvent them?

This has been our question on a number of subjects.  Christianity would insist that truth is not a reflection of society but something revealed by God.  Still, such a claim is all well and good, but does it really have value for those who choose not to follow Christianity?

While we can’t immediately answer this question, we’ll find a clue within the framework of contemporary psychology.  Sex, as we know, has the power to produce a great deal of shame and guilt.  Guilt is usually defined as the attitude that says: “I’ve done a bad thing.”  Shame, on the other hand, says: “I am a bad thing.”  The difference, says Richard Shweder, has to do with the kinds of standards we violate.  For instance, we might feel embarrassed when we violate what he calls the “ethics of community”—like when we put our foot in our mouth when we meet someone at a dinner party.  We might feel guilty if we violate the “ethics of autonomy”—such as if we violate the personal rights of someone else by cutting them off in traffic.  But Shweder says there’s this whole other category that he can’t help but call the “ethics of divinity.”  These issues are deeply connected to cultural ideas about what’s clean/unclean—what is truly sacred.  The reason he uses the word “divinity” is because some things are considered morally wrong in nearly every human society.  And yes; while the exact nature of their boundaries may differ, nearly every human society draws strict boundaries of clean and unclean with regard to sex.

How can this be?  If morality is a human invention, then why would every culture invent such similar standards?  Is it possible—just possible—that God’s standards can’t be so easily dismissed as a human creation?


Perhaps the most compelling piece of data comes from the fact that as humans—who, again, bear the image of our Creator—can’t fully separate sex from intimacy.  It’s simply not in our nature.  The desire for more than just a night of pleasure is written on the face of every young woman who wakes the next morning after a one-night-stand only to feel jilted by a single-serving lover who offers her only cab fare.  In recent years a group of social researchers interviewed young people on the subject of sex and dating.  The results shocked them.

“A significant number of emerging adults…have suffered devastating breakups involving romantic partners with whom they thought they were very seriously involved, probably on the path to marriage.  …  …The breakups that many emerging adults recounted…often happened in the context of couples living together…in any case, being sexually involved….[D]umped partners told tales of days spent sleeping and crying or lying in bed debilitated with depression, of anguish suffered at being cheated on or otherwise betrayed, of profound struggles with self-doubt, self-criticism, and hopelessness lasting for months, of uncertainty about being able to trust another man or woman whom they might love in the future.  Some worked hard in their interviews to keep themselves from weeping.  A few broke down in tears while recounting their stories.  These accounts suggested the experience of getting a hard divorce without ever even having gotten married.  For many, the pain and fear linger even as they try to pick up the pieces and move on.”[5]

Sex is about becoming “one flesh” with someone—physically and spiritually.  The data tells us that if we try and separate the two, the consequences are devastating.

My generation—more than the ones that preceded it—carries a heavy burden of what we might call “emotional debt.”  It’s what accumulates on our souls from a lifetime of self-indulgence.  What we need more than more talk on “purity” or pledges of abstinence—well-intentioned though these may be—is for someone to lift our debts away.

This is why the gospel is so meaningful in a world of sexual promiscuity and broken hearts.  In the gospel we find a Savior who takes our burdens—both moral and emotional—on himself (1 Peter 2:24), that we might find hope.  Find forgiveness.  Be made clean again.

[1] Jonathan Grant, Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized World, pp. 119-22.

[2] Simon Blackburn, Lust, p. 19.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter IX.

[4] David Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair,”

[5] Christian Smith, Souls in Transition, p. 61-2.

Sex in the tWorld

Few subjects elicit a sense of moral schizophrenia quite like human sexuality.  At one extreme end, we emphasize sex as something purely “natural,” yet condemn those who indulge their natural urges with no thought of consequence.  At the other extreme we see a depth of passion—a view of sex that goes deeper than a merely physical act.  Even in modern music, sex is described in religious terms, such as when Robert Smith of The Cure sang of a love that feels “just like heaven,” or when Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails sang (darkly) of sexual union that brings him “closer to God.”  Confused as our pop stars may be, they’re onto something basic: that sex is more than merely physical.

Christian author Philip Yancey suggests that many of our high-minded theories on sex point toward this same basic idea:

“The very word sex comes from a Latin verb that means to cut off or sever, and sexual impulses drive us to unite, to restore somehow the union that has been severed. Freud diagnosed the deep pain within as a longing for union with a parent; Jung diagnosed a longing for union with the opposite sex. The Christian sees a deeper longing, for union with the God who created us.”[1]

Sexuality is part of human nature, part of God’s design.  As we’ve mentioned, the tWorld—the world of tradition—bears the bad reputation of being against sex.  But what does the Bible have to say about human sexuality?


Returning to Genesis, we read:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27  So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-7)

Previously we’d examined the idea of God’s “image” in the context of gender—being created “male” and “female.”  But bearing God’s image also has implications for human sexuality.

Through the Bible, we learn that God eternally exists as a community of three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit.  What relationship do they share?  It wasn’t until roughly two centuries after Jesus that a man named Tertullian would come to offer definition to this concept.  Tertullian gave us the word “Trinity” to describe this relationship, and much of his language would be borrowed from the world of theater (for instance “person” comes from the Latin persona, meaning mask).  But Tertullian also noted that the Bible describes the persons of the Trinity as having fiercely intimate relationships, such as when Jesus declares: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:11).  Tertullian would coin a new word to describe this intimate fellowship: perichoresis.  The word itself is a bit cumbersome, but if you look very closely you can see the root of our current English word “choreography.”  More recently, C.S. Lewis adopted this understanding when he said that “God is not a static thing…but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.”[2]

If human beings are made in the image of this “divine drama,” this “divine choreography,” what does it tell us about our true purpose?   It tells us that we are created to mirror this choreographed community through our relationships.  While all human relationships do this to varying degrees, it is in sexual intercourse that our bodies penetrate one another just as the persons of the Trinity indwell one another.

Does this mean that the Trinity is sexual?  No; but it means that human sexuality is the closest we get to mirroring this divine relationship.  And it also means that before God utters a single word regarding human sexual ethics, we find the model for heterosexual intercourse embedded in the very character of God.


In the creation story, God goes on to describe humanity’s most immediate purpose:

And God blessed them. And God said to them,  “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

While even primitive societies have practiced contraceptive techniques, it’s only been recently that advances in reproductive technology have enabled us to sever the benefits of sex from the commitments of family.  But God’s original design saw them as linked: that human couples would populate the earth by having and raising children.

Even if we examine this from a purely biological standpoint, we see that sex is essential for the flourishing of life.  If you study biology, you learn that sexual reproduction ensures the most diversity of genes.  This promotes not only the diversity of life, but also minimizes the spread of harmful genes.  Could this also be an example of God’s wonderful design?


Sex also serves to unite husband and wife at a deeper level.  As the creation story moves from the general overview to the detailed account of husband and wife, we learn that “the Lord God formed the man out of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7).  We usually take this passage to mean that man is endowed with two things: (1) a physical body and (2) an immaterial “soul”—or at least the sum total of his emotions, thoughts, etc.

So after the woman is created, the caption on their “wedding portrait” says that “a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).  The phrase “one flesh” is obviously symbolic.  But if we understand human nature correctly, then we might understand this to mean that sex unites both our physical bodies and our immaterial souls.  It’s no wonder, then, that sexual relationships create such lasting bonds—and why young people feel so jilted and damaged when an emotional bond fails to develop after the physical bond of a one-night-stand.

Paul picks up on this same theme in 1 Corinthians.  In a time when early Christians were facing enormous difficulties, Paul reminds married couples that their sexuality has the power to keep them united:

The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. (1 Corinthians 7:3-4)

Doesn’t this also tell us why physical modesty is so important?  Christians insist on modesty not because we view parts of the human anatomy as “dirty.”  On the contrary; we see them as noble and therefore worthy of the care of privacy.


Finally, we find within the pages of Scripture an entire collection of love poems called “The Song of Solomon.”  Here we find a pair of lovers exchanging intimate promises to one another.  One of the opening lines is the woman saying: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” (Song of Solomon 1:2)—and it may surprise you to learn that the book gets far racier from there(!).

“The role of the woman throughout the Song [of Solomon] is truly astounding, especially in light of its ancient origins. It is the woman, not the man, who is the dominant voice throughout the poems that make up the Song. She is the one who seeks, pursues, initiates. [In Song 5:10–16] she boldly exclaims her physical attraction. . . . Most English translations hesitate in this verse. The Hebrew is quite erotic, and most translators cannot bring themselves to bring out the obvious meaning. . . . This again is a prelude to their lovemaking. There is no shy, shamed, mechanical movement under the sheets. Rather, the two stand before each other, aroused, feeling no shame, but only joy in each other’s sexuality.”[3]


Now it’s true that some of the human traditions of the tWorld were less than positive concerning sex.  Perhaps because he was something of a recovering sex addict, St. Augustine believed sex should be reserved only for human reproduction—a view that still colors some of the Roman Catholic thinking today.

But when we put these pieces all together, we find that Christianity represents a joyous celebration of sex.  This is why we should never think of sex as something “dirty” or resort to slang expressions like “doing the nasty.”  Sex is something beautiful, to be honored, treasured, celebrated.  But the pages of Genesis also hint at something we’ll cover as we proceed in our series: that because sex is so worthy of honor and nobility, sex is reserved for a couple committed to one another in marriage.  When we elevate reproduction as the sole purpose for sex, our posture becomes prudish and puritanical.  But when we elevate physical pleasure as the sole purpose, we become the slaves to our own desires.  We need God to help us understand the purpose of sex.  And we need God to rescue us from its abuses.


[1] Philip Yancey, “Holy Sex: How it Ravishes Our Souls,” Christianity Today, October 1, 2003.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 174-6.

[3] Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III, Intimate Allies: Rediscovering God’s Design for Marriage and Becoming Soul Mates for Life, p. 253–54.

To Know God Deeply

In his celebrated work Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis invites us to imagine a world where people crowded into adult theaters and strip clubs not to see a girl undress, but to see someone “bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see…that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon.”

“Would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?  And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally about the state of the sex instinct among us?  One critic said that if he found a country in which such striptease acts with food were popular, he would conclude that the people of that country were starving….[But] ‘starvation’ [is not the only explanation] we can imagine. Everyone knows that the sexual appetite, like our other appetites, grows by indulgence. Starving men may think much about food, but so do gluttons; the gorged, as well as the famished, like titillations.”[1]

But perhaps the issue is that we’re starving for something more than sex can ever offer.  The twentieth century novelist Kurt Vonnegut suggests something like this in his obscure novel Breakfast of Champions.  In his novel we meet Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer whose curse is that he can only get published in pornographic magazines.  In one of Trout’s stories, an “earthling” finds himself “on a planet where all animal and plant life had been killed by pollution, except for [the aliens.] The [aliens] ate food made from petroleum and coal.”

“They asked [the astronaut] if dirty movies were a problem on Earth, too, and [he] said, “Yes.”  They asked him if the movies were really dirty, and [he] replied, “As dirty as movies could get.”  This was a challenge to the humanoids, who were sure then: dirty movies could be at anything on Earth. So …they floated to a dirty movie house downtown….[T]he main feature…was about a male and a female and their two children, and their dog and their cat. They ate steadily for an hour and a half—soup, meat, biscuits, butter, vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy, fruit, candy, cake, pie.  …  After a while, the actors couldn’t eat any more….They cleared the table slowly. They went waddling out into the kitchen, and they dumped about thirty pounds of leftovers into a garbage can. The audience went wild.”[2]

Even after leaving the theater, the astronaut and his alien companions were propositioned by prostitutes, who could only offer them artificial versions of real food.  But if he took one of them up on her offer, the alien would “talk dirty about how fresh and full of natural juices the food was, even though the food was fake.”


Every major religion contains some moral code concerning sex.  Christianity sees sex as a sort of celebration—a gift given from God for his children to enjoy within the context of marriage.  King Solomon instructs his readers to “drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well” (Proverbs 5:15).  The context, of course, is that we should not look for satisfaction outside the source we find in God’s gift of marriage.  For those who are single, this also means not looking for sexual satisfaction outside the boundaries of marriage.

But years after Solomon, God would speak through Jeremiah, saying “My people have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13).  You understand the imagery here, right?  It’s like trading the Perrier bottling plant for the sewage treatment facility.

No wonder our sexual appetites have become so broken.  Like the characters in Vonnegut’s novel, we are starved for something real and nourishing, so we turn to some fantasy version for our own pleasure.  God’s design for sex has been perverted into something that—ultimately—provides no real satisfaction.


One of the myths we must overcome is that Christianity is in some way opposed to sex.  Or worse: many would see Christianity’s sexual ethics as in some way unhealthy.  In her book The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti tackles “the dangerous burden that falls on our girls to conform to impossible standards of purity.”[3]  Indeed, Christianity’s teachings on sexual purity have alternately been dismissed as laughably impractical, or attacked as dangerously oppressive.

Much of this owes, at least in part, to the fact that Christianity has been willing to lament the violations of God’s design than to celebrate the goodness of God’s design.  Most sermons decompose to moralistic commands to “behave yourself,” while Christian dating books read more like guides on what not to do before your honeymoon.

So while we might not dismiss “purity” as merely a “myth,” we might also recognize purity is not the main goal.  Purity is certainly not the main goal for human sexuality, and it’s also not the main goal for the Christian life in general.  Instead, we make our focus the gospel.  The gospel tells us that human beings are flawed and broken in every respect—including our sexuality. But the gospel also promises that we are loved and valued beyond comprehension, and by trusting in Jesus we receive the acceptance of God.  This—this—is Christianity’s highest goal: to know God deeply and intimately.  Moral purity can never terminate on itself; it must always point us joyfully upward to the face of the Creator.

So how does the gospel help us understand God’s plan for sex?  And how can the gospel help us untangle the various ways that sex has become such a “dirty” thing in our culture?



[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

[2] Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

[3] Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth

Gender in the rWorld

How do we respond to the transgender community?  What do we do if we discover that our own son or daughter is struggling with his or her gender identity?  Is it a moral compromise for Christians to embrace gender-inclusive language such as the pronoun “ze” (instead of “he” or “she”)?

Let’s be honest: we’re entering a strange new world, culturally speaking.  The iWorld celebrates diversity at any cost imaginable.  How might the rWorld, the world of relationship, address the confusion that we’re experiencing?


First, are there treatment options?  If gender dysphoria first presents in childhood, are there ways to address this condition?  Yarhouse outlines four different options.  One of those options is to actually facilitate gender transformation—which we already concluded might do more harm than good.  That leaves three possible approaches:[1]

  • Intervene by decreasing cross-gender identification: This means that parents might discourage the behaviors associated with gender dysphoria—a form of “conversion therapy.” The problem is that by going against the grain, both parents and children may experience a great deal of pain to resist something that seems so natural to the child.
  • Watchful waiting: Yarhouse reports that 75% of cases of gender dysphoria resolve on their own. Rather than intervene, why not simply allow the issue to resolve on its own?
  • Suppression of puberty: By using hormone blockers, physicians are able to delay the changes associated with puberty. The idea is that at an older age, the child may be better prepared to make a decision about their gender.  In some cases, the decision to cease treatment (and thereby enter puberty) causes the issue to resolve.

A recent NPR report says that the latter is the most effective form of therapy.  But no form of therapy is 100%.  What do we do when gender dysphoria persists past childhood and into adulthood?  How might Christians think through this issue?


We’re faced with the daunting task of addressing the complexity of this issue without neglecting the character of God.  Yarhouse says that the integrity, disability, and diversity frameworks proved inadequate to achieve this goal.  Instead, he says, Christians may embrace what he calls an “integrated framework” to help think through this issue.  The integrated framework consists of the following:[2]

  • Maintaining the integrity of sex differences without endorsing stereotypes. This means that the Christian community need not abandon our commitment to God’s design.  But it also means that we cannot embrace rigid definitions about what makes you a “man” or a “woman”—as though our gender identity were bound in our physical appearance, career, or athletic performance.
  • Compassionate management of dysphoria: This means that gender dysphoria might be something that never really goes away. One sufferer compared her experience to “the hiss an old-time radio–a sound which can be ignored with some effort in order to hear the broadcast, but cannot be extinguished without pulling the plug.  It has always been there, long before I understood what was making the noise.”  To that end the Christian community can assist by learning to embrace those who struggle just as we would learn to embrace anyone who came through our doors struggling with a besetting sin.
  • Create a community that offers meaning and purpose: There must undoubtedly be a sense of confusion that comes with not knowing who you are. Christians can provide a radical, missional counter-culture that offers a lens through which to see and understand reality.  For some, the gospel might become a way that enables transgendered individuals to embrace not the self they’ve “discovered,” but a new self transformed by the power of God.  In the meantime, however, the Christian community can assist by emphasizing descriptive, not prescriptive language as to what life looks like as a gendered person. Prescriptive language may serve only to remind others of their inability to measure up, while descriptive language may elevate the design to which we may aspire.


There are many people in our world for whom having a body is not good news.  If you are a woman, then having a body has not always been good news for you.  Having a body places you as a sex object in the leering eyes of men.  Having a body places you at risk of rape and sexual assault.  Having a body grants you the risk of body shaming and constant criticism.  Some women have even experienced the suffering—deep, bone-numbing suffering—of infertility and miscarriage.  Having a body has not been always good news for you.

If you’re a man, then having a body has not always been good news for you.  Having a body places you at similar risk of being “shamed” for not measuring up to society’s standards of masculinity—how many pushups you can do, the presence or absence of a “six pack,” etc.  Having a body has not been good for you, because you also face the potential shame of infertility and sexual dysfunction.  Having a body has not always been good news for you.

If you are intersex, transgender, or queer, then having a body has not been good news for you.  You’ve lived—for years, perhaps—with the confusion of who you are underneath not matching who you are on the surface.  Having a body has meant living with the disparity of sex and gender.  Having a body has meant that family and close friends have been more likely to label you a freak than to offer you acceptance.  And because of this, having a body means you may have considered taking your own life.

No; having a body has not always been good news for you.  Christianity says that good news has a body.  The gospel story is about a God who puts on human skin through a process known as the “incarnation.”  Jesus—God in the flesh—walked the earth as one of us, so that he might experience what it means to be human (John 1:14).  Because he was male, Jesus may not have experienced everything unique to both genders or to transgendered individuals, but because he was human Jesus understood the sheer frailty of human flesh, and promised us that one day it might be redeemed, on the day when the “perishable” shall be raised “imperishable,” and all knees fall to the earth in the majesty and the glory of the radiant Christ.  Good news has a body; Jesus invites us to follow him.

[1] Mark A. Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture, p. 102-122.

[2] Ibid., 53-54.

Gender in the iWorld (Part 2)

If you sign up for Facebook, one of the ways you’re asked to describe yourself is your “gender.”  It used to be a simple matter of “male” or “female.”  But Facebook now boasts a total of 59 different genders to choose from—the 59th being a fill-in-the-blank option.

As we noted previously, biological sex refers simply to being “male” or “female.”  Gender, on the other hand, relates to one’s social and psychological experience of being male or female.  But in recent years there’s been increased attention given to those whose experience of gender does not match their birth sex.  How might we think our way through this?


We start by appreciating the sheer complexity of the issue.  Let’s start by defining some terms:[1]

  • Gender dysphoria: The experience of distress related to having a psychological and emotional gender identity that does not match one’s birth sex.
  • Transgender: An umbrella term for the many ways in which people experience and/or present, express their identities differently than those whose sense of gender identity is congruent with their biological sex.
  • Genderqueer: An umbrella term for the ways in which people experience their gender identity outside or in between a male/female binary (e.g., no gender, gender fluid—using pronouns such as “one” or “ze”).
  • Intersex: A condition where a person is born with sex characteristics and/or anatomy that does not allow them to be identified clearly as male or female. This could be chromosomal, gonadal, or genital.

For some of us, there may be a temptation to shake our heads in disgust, or reduce prominent members of the transgender community (such as Caitlin Jenner) to the butt of a cruel joke.  We must resist that temptation.  Studies show that of those who experience gender dysphoria, 41% commit suicide.  We must approach this issue with compassion.


It’s important to draw a distinction between gender dysphoria and sexual orientation.  The two concepts may overlap, but they are quite different.  And what’s equally important is that gender dysphoria manifests itself in a series of developmental stages:[2]

  • Gender dysphoria most frequently begins in children as early as age 6; they may even begin engaging in certain cross-dressing behaviors or playing with toys geared toward the opposite gender.
  • By age 11 they are experiencing a great deal of internal confusion, magnified by the onset of pubery.
  • By age 18 they are trying to reason with their own internal confusion. They are fully aware that “something is wrong with me.”  Some may even try to privately research their condition.
  • By age 27 they have begun to address the conflict. For some that means seeking counseling.  Others may engage in cross-dressing behavior—whether in public or in private.
  • By age 35 they have decided to “come clean” and disclose their condition to their spouse or significant other—or maybe to family and close friends.
  • By age 47 many seek resolution. For some that means accepting their condition, while for others it means transitioning into the opposite gender through more cross-dressing, hormonal treatments, through surgical interventions, or some combination of the three.

That means that if you were to meet someone from the transgender community, there’s a good chance you’re walking into their story at chapter 5 or 6 or more.  There’s been a lengthy history behind them; this wasn’t a choice that they made on their own.

Where can we even begin to start thinking through such a complex issue?  Yarhouse suggests that there are three general approaches we might take.


For Christians, the most tempting approach is the integrity framework, which sees gender dysphoria as a sin to be repented of.  For instance, some English renderings of 1 Corinthians 6:9 say that “the effeminate” “will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  Similarly, Deuteronomy 22:5 says thatA man’s item shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not wear a woman’s garment,” which we might apply to the practice of cross-dressing. 

But the command in Deuteronomy might not translate so well into modern society.

“It is likely that, in keeping with God’s covenantal concern to persevere the holiness of his character reflected within the covenant community of Israel, and to avoid anything which threatened Israel’s existence and harmony, the cross-dressing prohibition was introduced to prevent involvement on the part of the Israelites in contemporary Canaanite religions rituals of the day, which involved swapping of sex roles and cross-dressing.”[4]

Further, the early onset (and undesired nature) of gender dysphoria suggests that people are not experiencing this condition as a matter of choice.  So while we must not ignore the Bible’s strong language, we must also avoid reducing the Bible to an “ethical cookbook.”


The “disability framework” sees gender dysphoria as a disability that needs to be treated.  Just as the fallen world produced “thorns and thistles” under God’s curse (Genesis 3:18), so too might human DNA and neurology be shaped away from God’s good design.

The value of this approach is that it removes the possibility of condemnation and treats the person with compassion. The problem, however, is that this approach fails at a practical level.  The cause of gender dysphoria is not well known, so it’s difficult to know how such a disability might best be treated.

Additionally, if the danger of the integrity framework was the emphasis of morality to the neglect of disability, then the danger of the disability framework is the neglect of the moral dimensions of gender dysphoria.  Even if we assume that individuals have little or no control over their internal struggles, the way they manage these struggles by acting out or sexual behavior represents a falling short of God’s moral standards (Romans 3:23).


From a cultural point of view, the most common approach has been the diversity framework, which sees gender dysphoria as something to be embraced as a symbol of the diversity of Western culture.

The problem is that some of the best available research has revealed that trying to change one’s gender through medical means has not resolved the distress of those who struggle with their gender identity.  In 2014, Paul McHugh, former head of the psychiatry department at John’s Hopkins, wrote an important piece for The Wall Street Journal explaining why his hospital had—at least at one time—stopped performing “sex-reassignment surgery:”

“A … long-term study—up to 30 years—followed 324 people who had sex-reassignment surgery. The study revealed that beginning about 10 years after having the surgery, the transgendered began to experience increasing mental difficulties. Most shockingly, their suicide mortality rose almost 20-fold above the comparable non-transgender population. …Claiming that this is civil-rights matter and encouraging surgical intervention is in reality to collaborate with and promote a mental disorder.”[7]

In reading McHugh’s article, I can’t help but reflect on something similar written by Peggy Noonan some years ago.  Noonan was reflecting on a high school graduation she had attended, where she witnessed an expecting, unwed mother walking across the stage.  The audience applauded her achievement.  On the one hand, Noonan observed that such a response was “a right and generous response for a young girl with grit and heart.”  But on the other hand, while “the old America would not have applauded the girl in the big graduation gown, but some of its individuals would have helped her not only materially but with some measure of emotional support.”  But this doesn’t happen anymore, Noonan observed.  “For all our tolerance and talk we don’t show much love to what used to be called girls in trouble. As we’ve gotten more open-minded we’ve gotten more closed-hearted.”  Noonan concludes with a message to society:  “What you applaud, you encourage…Watch out what you celebrate.” [8]

What we applaud, we celebrate.  The tWorld may have reacted to gender dysphoria with less than acceptance, but the iWorld’s applause may do more damage yet.  Compassion—true, fearless, Christian compassion—demands that we not “collaborate with and promote a mental disorder.”   Instead, the gospel calls us to understand the brokenness of our neighbor, and to meet them where they are rather than merely where we’d like them to be.  These issues are real; they are complex.  They demand a fuller vision of the gospel, and a richer understanding of the love of God.


[1] From Mark A. Yarhouse, Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture, p. 20.

[2] Ibid., 115.

[3] Ibid., 46-7.

[4] Evangelical Alliance Policy Commission [EAPC], Transexuality: A Report on the Evangelical Alliance Policy Commission, p. 45.

[5] Yarhouse, 48-9.

[6] Ibid., 50-51.

[7] Paul McHugh, “Transgender Surgery is not the Solution,” June 12, 2014,

[8] Peggy Noonan, “You’d Cry Too if it Happened to You,”  Forbes magazine, September 14, 1992, archived online at:

Gender in the iWorld

It’s Christmas morning, and little Zachariah can’t wait to see what’s under the tree.  His heart beats quickly as his fingers shred the colorful wrapping paper.  To his delight, it’s just what he’d wanted: a talking G.I. Joe action figure.  Removing it from the box, he pushes the button to hear Joe bark his orders.  Instead he hears a high-pitched, feminine voice saying things like: “Want to go shopping?” and “Math is tough!”

It was the early 1990’s, and a group called the Barbie Liberation Organization had been wreaking havoc with the toy industry.  They’d found a way to swap the voice chips of the new “talking Barbie” with the “talking G.I. Joe.”  As an end result, little boys like Zachariah received action figures spouting the sexist lines intended for Barbie.[1]

The tWorld contains both Biblical traditions as well as human traditions.  Because human traditions are not uniformly positive, the tWorld can sometimes do more to distort gender roles than to clarify them.


As we pointed out earlier, the tWorld can often construct definitions of masculinity and femininity that are rooted in little more than cultural stereotypes.  But let’s remember that as bad as our stereotypes may be, Jesus occupied a world just as bad.

For instance, one ancient writer recognized that in the ancient world, women were valued solely by their physical beauty.  “Immediately after they are fourteen…women are called ‘ladies’ by men.  So when they see that they have nothing else but only to be the bedfellows of men, they begin to beautify themselves, and put all their hopes in that.”[2]  In other words, if a woman didn’t measure up to social beauty standards, she was dismissed as worthless.  In addition to body shame, women experienced character shame.  Jewish men were known to pray: “Thank you, God, that I am not a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.”[3]  In some ways, infertility was a form of career shame—as women would describe themselves as “worthless” (1 Samuel 1:16).  All of this meant that women in the ancient world experienced body shame, character shame, and career shame.

Sound familiar?  For most of western history, women suffered through these experiences in relative silence.  But in the middle of the twentieth century, the Second World War forced women to “fill in” for America’s men by entering the workforce. When the war ended, many of them didn’t want to give up their new careers.  For the first time ever, women’s rights became a prominent issue in America, and in the years that followed a movement called “feminism” emerged to defend the equality of women.

To that end, the iWorld had a positive effect inasmuch as it eroded the harmful stereotypes of the past.  But it would be wrong to say that Biblical Christianity was anything other than on the side of the solution.  We see several ways in which Christianity elevated women above negative social stereotypes:

  • Jesus elevated the status of women like no other religious figure, ignoring purity laws to care for women (Mark 5:25-34), talking to women of different social classes (John 4:7), he offered his teaching to women as well as men (Luke 10:38-42), and repeatedly stressed the importance of caring for widows (Luke 2:36; 4:26; 7:11; 18:1; 20:47; 21:1).
  • In ancient Rome, young girls were regarded as worthless and therefore left to die shortly after birth. Ancient inscriptions read that in ancient Rome, out of 600 familes, only 6 had raised a daughter.[4]  Early Christians were known to take in these “unwanted” girls to raise as their own.
  • In ancient Rome, only boys received education. But early Christians educated women as well as men.[5]  Even today, it’s been Christian missionaries that have insisted on the education of women despite cultural protests.[6]

If you assume that Christianity has historically been oppressive to women, then I’d respectfully suggest you haven’t looked closely enough at the pages of history.  Women have received honor and dignity through the acts of Jesus and his followers.


While Christianity and feminism might find some common ground in tackling cultural stereotypes, the two systems part ways in other issues.  Feminism, at its core, tends to say that if stereotypes are rooted in cultural traditions, then so too are all forms of gender identity.  In other words, if it’s harmful to confine women to gender roles in the workplace, it’s equally wrong to confine them to gender roles in the home.  Anything else would be considered the denial of “equal rights,” and the result can only be “male dominance.”  As one writer puts it, “to strip a woman naked and hold her down under the power of a knife, a fistful of money, or the glare of a camera is the supreme expression of man’s rule over woman.” [7]

So when the Bible calls women to “submit to your husbands” (Ephesians 5:22), our only options seem to be to (1) dismiss such language as the product of a primitive, patriarchal society, or (2) victimize women at the hands of oppressive male leadership.

But maybe—just maybe—God’s beautiful design would produce something quite positive.  In 2006, a pair of social scientists from the University of Virginia performed an important study on the overall happiness of marriages.  The cultural assumption has been that an “egalitarian” marriage—that is, where both partners share all roles equally—would produce happier, longer-lasting relationships.  They found that the opposite is true: that traditional marriages tend to produce happier, more-committed couples:

“[Researchers] find no support for the theory that egalitarianism (conceptualized as approving or disapproving of women working when [they] have children, whether or not the wife participated in the labor force, whether husband or wife earned more, and how equally household labor [was] divided) promotes wife’s marital quality.  It is important for wife’s marital happiness that husband and wife have shared ideas about marriage, that they both commit to the institution of marriage, that they are integrated into an institution (like the church) that also has these same ideas about marriage, and that the marriage and the husbands are emotionally invested in marriage.”[8]

These aren’t the biased ramblings of evangelical preachers; this represents research from one of the sociology department of a highly-respected university.  Perhaps God’s design for marriage and family isn’t as outdated as we thought.


So what about the workplace?  Surely we would be better off if there was an equal sharing of roles in the workforce?

From a moral standpoint, Christianity makes no objection to women entering the career field.  But we must avoid the misstep of elevating career over motherhood (or vice versa), or in twisting equality into some form of uniformity.

It’s actually been tried before in the form of the Israeli kibbutz movement.  In the last century, these communities were formed on the basis of total equality for women and men.  The belief was that this utopian vision would eradicate gender altogether.  So what happened?

“The experiment collapsed within a generation, and a traditional family and gender system reasserted itself. Why? … because the mothers wanted their kids back. They wanted to take care of their young children in the old-fashioned way, themselves. … Such feelings persisted and intensified, until collective pressure forced the kibbutz to let parents spend extra time with their kids.” [9]

Perhaps these are merely the reflections of a society that simply lacks the courage to shrug off the shackles of male dominance and gender roles.  Or perhaps God’s design and the moral order retains enduring value even in a world marked by individual rights rather than social responsibilities.

Christianity says that women are deeply and intrinsically valuable—and that the asymmetry in gender roles needn’t be seen as a sign of inequality.  When we see the many ways in which men and women complement one another, we see beauty, we see order, we see joy.


[1] Story appears in Leonard Sax, Why Gender Matters, p. 33.

[2] Epictetus, Encheirodon 40.

[3] Yoel Kahn. The Three Blessings: Boundaries, Censorship, and Identity in Jewish Liturgy.

[4] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, p. 97.

[5]Alvin J. Schmidt How Christianity Changed the World, p. 171.

[6] Dana Roberts, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion, p. 50.

[7] Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles: A Guide for the Study of Female Roles in the Bible, p. 36.

[8] W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven L. Nock, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?  Equality, Equity, Commitment, and Women’s Marital Quality,” Social Forces 84, no. 3 (March 2006): 1321-45.

[9] Stanley Kurtz, “Can We Make Boys and Girls Alike?” City Journal, Spring 2005,

Gender in the tWorld (Genesis 2)

When God created the heavens and the earth, there was one—and only one—thing that he deemed to be “not good.”  “It is not good for man to be alone,” God says (Genesis 2:18).  From the very beginning, God’s design included the intention for a gendered community—one that reflected and exalted his very image.  As Mark Yarhouse puts it, our gendered selves point us toward a greater meaning found only in God:

“To be human is to experience a longing for completion. Did God create us with a longing for completion that forces us to look outside of ourselves so that the longing itself would be illustrative?  It may be that the longing for the other is related to our biological sex and gendered selves—because it is meant to represent a longing for God—was made possible in the creation of two sexes and is not in any way incidental to the creation.  The creation of two sexes provides, then, a living illustration of a point intended to direct us toward our creator.”[1]

In the tWorld, the world of tradition, we’ll find that man and woman were created in the image of a divine community, and in both the Trinity and humanity we find both equality and asymmetry.


Genesis tells us that though God allowed the earth to bring forth every other living creature, the creation of humanity was deeply personal.

Then God said,  “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27  So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

What does it mean to bear God’s “image?”  Though the term has been variously understood, the most direct meaning of the Hebrew word tselem or “image” is “representative rule.”[2]  Andreas Kostenberger writes that “just as God rules over a large domain—the whole universe—so humanity is given charge of the entire earth to rule it for God.”[3]

But who exactly is God?  Through the progress of God’s revelation, we learn that God eternally exists as a community of three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit.  So if humanity was made in the image of community, then it stands to reason that the need for community would be deeply woven into every facet of human existence.

This is why gendered humanity is so important.  Genesis tells us that God made us male (zakhar) and female (nekevah).  Men and women were designed to complement one another, in exactly the same way that members of the Trinity complement one another.

In his recent book on gender, Sam Andreades writes that men and women have both “equality and asymmetry.”[4]  We find much the same in the Trinity—where Father, Son, and Spirit are equally God, yet there exists an asymmetry in the way their roles are fulfilled.

So if men and women are created in the image of this community, we will find this same pattern of equality and asymmetry in the context of gendered relationships.


First—and perhaps most importantly—we must recognize that Christianity insists on the absolute equality of men and women.  Having both been created in the image of God, men and women share dignity and responsibility.  This would have been a shocking revelation to an ancient, patriarchal society.  In his analysis of this subject, Bruce Waltke outlines five specific ways that women share in the equality of men.[5]

  • Equality in creation—that is, sharing in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28).
  • Equality in parenting—mothers have an equal authority over their children’s education (Proverbs 1:8; 31:26).
  • Equality in spiritual giftedness—In the Old Testament, women can become female prophets (e.g., Exodus 15:20-21; Isaiah 8:3), and in the New Testament women also receive God’s Spirit to share the gospel (Acts 1:8-14; 2:1-4).
  • Equality in prayer—women are able to pray directly to God without the need for a husband to mediate the process (Genesis 30:22-24).
  • Equality in worship—Women are able to celebrate God through singing, dancing (e.g. 1 Samuel 18:6) and can offer sacrifices along with men (Leviticus 12:6).

In fact, in the ancient world, in all the thousands of ancient texts, there is only one example of God calling a woman by name: God’s address of Hagar in Genesis 16:8.  Within Christianity, women are granted unique worth and significance.


In Genesis 2, the story moves from the general to the specific.  Now we get a more detailed account of the creation of man and woman.  Adam had been created first, but now God realizes that something in his creation is “not good.”  “It is not good that the man should be alone;” God says.  “I will make him an ezer kenedgo for him” (Genesis 2:18).

An ezer kenegdo?  The word ezer most literally means “helper.”  To be honest, it’s hard to hear that because the word “helper” seems condescending—as if women are little more than Adam’s lab partner.  But when the word is used elsewhere, it is used to refer to God helping his people.  So being a “helper” can’t possibly mean that women are inferior.  The word kenegdo means “suitable,” or “fit.”  So God’s design for women is to fashion “a helper fit for him.”

Here, then , we find the “asymmetry” in design.  Yes; women equally share in the image of God, but they fulfill this role in ways that are unique to their gender.  This creates marked differences in the way gender roles and gender identity is expressed.  Therefore, in the tWorld, the world of tradition, we find a variety of ways to understand what is “masculine” and “feminine.”

But earlier we noted that while gender is not culturally constructed it is culturally expressed.  What factors influence masculinity and femininity in today’s world?  We might think of this as something of a spectrum: at one end we have the relatively fixed world of human biology, and at the other the ever-changing world of Western culture.[6]

Gender tWorld Spectrum

What we’re left with is a series of categories for understanding the factors that influence gender role:

Gender tWorld Int

  • Biologically determined: This includes all the biological factors associated with human reproduction—or, in the case of children, to be developing toward sexual maturity. Granted, we might (sensitively!) point out that there may be singles or couples who are unable to conceive, but even these seeming exceptions also serve to magnify the design present in biology.
  • Morally determined: This includes the morality associated with sexual maturity—including sexual morality and issues of modesty. But this also includes the way that husbands and wives are designed to interact in the context of marriage. Men are called to be leaders within the home (1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:25), and women are called to “submit” to his authority (Ephesians 5:22-24).  Submission, we must emphasize, “is not an absolute surrender of her will.”  As a pair of theological writers define it, “submission refers to a wife’s divine calling to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts.”  Submission is a “disposition to yield to her husband’s guidance and her inclination to follow his leadership.” [7]

Let’s make no mistake: the roles expressed in the tWorld do not necessarily produce weak, demure women whose only role is to say “yes, dear.”  On the contrary: God’s design is that women would be seen as ferociously strong and challenge their men to be better leaders and better warriors for the gospel.

Gender tWorld Final

But there are several ways that masculinity and femininity have been shaped by cultural forces.  As we continue down the spectrum, we’ll see how we move farther from fixed absolutes into areas that, admittedly, are largely cultural.

  • Culturally determined based on biological differences: These are divisions we’ve constructed around our biological differences: men and women use separate restrooms and changing facilities. Because of our physical differences, men and women typically compete in different sports divisions.
  • Culturally determined based on social traditions: These are the standards that say that women wear dresses and makeup, or that men should pay for a date or open the door for a lady. They’re largely arbitrary, though not wholly meaningless.
  • Culturally determined based on harmful stereotypes: This is the prejudice that says that men can be doctors but women should be “just nurses.” Likewise, if a young man are sexually promiscuous, he is likely to be celebrated by his community, while a woman is shunned.  Such stereotypes demean both women and men, because they erode the image of God embedded in both.

The tWorld therefore contains both Biblical tradition as well as human tradition.  In some ways this is helpful, in others quite harmful.  But in either case, the tWorld reveals the ways in which gender fosters deeper relationships and—more significantly—reflects the glory of our Creator.



[1] Mark A. Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria, p. 37.

[2] Hans-Walter Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament, p. 160.

[3] Andreas Kostenberger, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, p. 24

[4] Sam A. Andreades, Engendered: God’s Gift of Gender Differences in Relationships.

[5] Bruce K. Waltke, Old Testament Theology, p. 239-41.

[6] George Alan Rekers, “Rearing Masculine Boys and Feminine Girls,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., p 307.

[7] John Piper and Wayne Grudem, “An Overview of Central Concerns: Questions and Answers,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., p. 61.

Why gender?

In the Spring of 2015, the Ad Council put together a video called “Love has no Labels.”  In the video, a giant X-ray screen is set up in the downtown area of a major city.  Behind the screen various couples are dancing and kissing—though the gathering crowd sees nothing more than skeletons.  Then comes the big reveal, when the crowds discover that the affectionate couple was a pair of women.  The video underscores this point, saying: “Love has no gender.”  The video went viral.  The point seemed inescapably clear.  As Slate’s J. Bryan Lowder puts it, “if we can get past our surface prejudices, love looks the same.”[1]

But is gender merely a matter of “surface prejudices?”  Sure, the contrast may not be as obvious, but a trained eye can spot the differences between a male and female skeleton—primarily (though not exclusively) in the bones of the hips and pelvis.  So the ad said more than it intended.  The ad’s message was that our differences are a matter of “surface prejudices.”  But the reality is that our differences go all the way to the bone.


First, let’s clarify our terms here.   In his work on gender dysphoria (a subject we’ll return to later on), Mark Yarhouse articulates a threefold distinction between sex and gender:[2]

  • Biological Sex: “As male or female (typically with reference to chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, and internal reproductive anatomy and external genitalia).”
  • Gender : “The psychological, social, and cultural aspects of being male or female.”
  • Gender identity: “How you experience yourself (or think of yourself) as male or female, including how masculine or feminine a person feels.”
  • Gender role: “Adoption of cultural expectations for maleness or femaleness.”

So, for clarity, here’s what that might look like for a traditional understanding of sex and gender:[3]

Biological sex: Male Female
Gender identity: Man Woman
Gender role: Masculine Feminine

No one disputes the existence of obvious biological differences between men and women.  In their book Same Difference, Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers suggest that gender goes deeper than mere biology.  “Of course there are differences between the sexes,” they write.   “But more important is the size of difference between men and women compared to those among women and men.”[4]  Any call to traditional gender norms “belies the energy we see around us, as our society embraces new freedoms and discovers new tolerance, rejecting old stereotypes. …More freedom…allows us to be more varied, complex, and unique than does a world shackled by the iron bars of a gender-difference culture.”[5]


But the differences between men and women are hardly superficial.  It’s probably already obvious to point out that men have a higher basal metabolism and cardio capacity—that’s why men tend to have higher muscle mass and tougher bones and ligaments. [6]  But what might be less obvious is the way that men and women each have a radically different brain structure and thought process.  So much so that in recent years, some researchers have suggested that “brain sex [i.e., the sex of the brain] is paramount in determining human gender identity.”[7]  There’s an astounding body of data on this, but it might be more helpful to look at some of the more interesting ways it plays out in everyday life—many of which are detailed in the early chapters of Leonard Sax’s influential work, Why Gender Matters.

  • If you’re a father with a teenage daughter, have you ever had this conversation: “Stop yelling at me!” “I’m not yelling at you.”  We don’t even have to specify who’s the father and daughter in that exchange.  Why?  Well, women Women tend to have a more acute sense of touch, hearing, smell, and taste. [8]  So the father and daughter are experiencing the same sound in two different ways.”[9]  What seems normal to a forty-three-year-old sounds like yelling to a seventeen-year-old.
  • Ask a woman and man to give directions and you’ll get radically different sets of instructions. Sax tells us that according to the best research, “women typically navigate using landmarks that can be seen or heard or smelled.  Men are more likely to use absolute direction such as north and south or absolute distances such as miles or city blocks.”[10]  Why?  Because “young women use the cerebral cortex while young men use the hippocampus, a nucleus deep inside the brain that is not activated in women’s brains during navigational tasks.”[11]
  • In summer of this past year, Target announced that they would be introducing “gender-neutral” labels for some of their children’s sections—most notably the toy aisle.[12] This has been good news for parents of children who’d just as soon play tea party as construction worker.  But while gender-specific toys aren’t a rigid category, there are key differences in the preferences of young boys and girls that can’t be explained away by culture.  According to Sax, studies in both humans and monkeys have shown that girls tend to be concerned with things such as color and texture—and answering the question “What is it?”  Boys, on the other hand, tend to be more focused on action, speed—answering the question “Where is it now?”  “So we shouldn’t be surprised,” Sax says, “that young females…prefer dolls over trucks, while young males…prefer trucks over dolls.”[13] In other studies, these preferences appear as early as nine-months old—well before culture has had its chance to influence these choices.[14]

While it may be true that differences in gender may be culturally expressed, we can’t say that gender differences are culturally constructed.  If that were true, then every culture’s gender roles would look wildly different.  But, as Gregg Johnson points out in his article on gender differences, “of two hundred fifty cultures studied, males dominate in almost all….The fact that these universals transcend divergent animal groups and cultures suggests that there must be more than a cultural basis for these sex differences.”[15]


Why gender?  Why such differences?  Perhaps our biological differences hint at something far deeper.  One spiritual writer puts it this way: “Our sexuality penetrates to the deepest metaphysical ground of our personality.”  That is, our identities as male and female go far deeper than we can ever hope to measure through biology or psychology.  “As a result,” he says, “the physical differences between the man and the woman are a parable of psychical and spiritual differences of a more ultimate nature.” [16]

Gender points beyond itself to a greater and more beautiful design.  Yet how can we affirm this design if gender roles are assumed to be human inventions?  How do we celebrate gender roles without bowing to gender stereotypes?  How do we ennoble our young men and women to see their differences as signs of strength, not weakness?



[1] J. Bryan Lowder, “Beyond the Visible Spectrum, Love Looks the Same,”

[2] Mark A. Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture, p. 17.

[3] Ibid., 18.

[4] Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers, Same Difference: How Gender Myths are Hurting our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs, p. 13.

[5] Ibid., 254.

[6] A. Glucksman, Sexual Dimorphism in Human and Mammalian Biology and Pathology (Academic Press, 1981), pp. 66-75.

[7] Gaya Aranoff and Jennifer Bell, “Endocrinology and Growth in Children and Adolescents,” in Marianne Legato, ed. Principles of Gender-Specific Medicine, p. 12.

[8] Durden-Smith and Desimone, Sex and the Brain, pp. 71-73.

[9] Leonard Sax, Why Gender Matters, p. 18.

[10] Sax, 25-6.

[11] Ibid., 26.

[12] A. Powlowski, “Target removing ‘gender-based’ signage after complaints from parents,”, August 10, 2015,

[13] Sax, 22.

[14] Anne Campbell et al., “Infants’ Visual Preference for Sex-Congruent Babies, Children, Toys and Activities: A Longitudinal Study,” British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 18:479-98, 2000.

[15] Gregg Johnson, “The Biological Basis for Gender-Specific Behavior” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Wayne Grudem and John Piper, eds., p.282.

[16] Emil Brunner, Das Gebot und die Ordungen, quoted in Paul Jewett, Man as Male and Female, p. 173.