Gender and the Image of God

What with all the media hubbub raging across the internet these days in the wake of Bruce Jenner’s transformation into Caitlyn Jenners, it seemed like an appropriate time to revisit what gender is, in the Bible, and see how Christians ought to respond to this marvel of scientific achievement and courageous challenge to a culture only on the brink of accepting such an action as a gender change.

For those who have mercifully avoided the hype (both supportive and critical of Jenner’s life choices), I point you to Wikipedia as a handy starting point from where you can branch out to other sources as desired.  In short:

“VanityFairJuly2015” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

From a theological perspective, Jenner’s relational history is a tale of contradiction and turmoil: three serial marriages to three different women, a self-identification as asexual, a self-perception to be a woman in a man’s body… and despite all this is “a professed Christian, leans politically conservative, and is a Republican.”  Both the religious and political declarations seem surprising.  Clearly, William Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner has faced a great deal of conflict throughout his life, bouncing between women, and uncertain of his own identity (sexually or otherwise).  Regardless of where one stands on this, morally speaking, it must be recognized that he must have gone through a lot of pain.  And though I can neither delve into Jenner’s personal feelings, beliefs, and views, I can speak from where I know – the teachings of the Church as founded in the Scriptures.

The earliest teaching in the Bible that we find concerning gender is in Genesis 1:27.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (ESV – English Standard Version)

Let it be understood that “man” in the first phrase is a genderless term, meaning mankind, or humanity.  God created the human race to be a reflection of the divine, and that reflection (or imaging) is found in both male and female.  What I’m seeing Western culture doing now, however, is rewriting this verse:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female and created them, but sometimes he got them mixed up. (WCV – Western Culture Version)

For, as many transgender folks have said (and as a documentary on the subject has been entitled), I was “born in the wrong body.”  Now, in many world-views, maybe even most world-views today, that’s a perfectly acceptable quote.  But in a Christian worldview, where the perfection and sovereignty of God is a theological given, this phrase is rather blasphemous.  Taken seriously, the claim to have been “born in the wrong body” is essentially a declaration that God made a mistake in assigning that person’s gender, be it physically or dispositionally.  Granted, there are cases in which people are born with unusual combinations of reproductive organs that defy the classic definitions of gender, but that’s a another scenario for another time.

Rather, the biblical information we start with is that God created the human race in his own image, using the genders of male and female.  The basic application and understanding of this, both among Jews and Christians, has been that marriage is an institution created by God to be between a man and a woman.  But the deeper theological reason behind that wasn’t explicitly explained until the New Testament was written.  Ephesians 5:31-32 says:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

Basically, the union of male and female as husband and wife is an image of God because it is a profound mysterious (or sacramental) demonstration of the life union of Christ and the Church.  Jesus, the bridegroom, and his people, the bride, are united in a marital union.  When husband and wife are joined together, a picture of that heavenly marriage is made manifest in our world.  Marriage is a picture of salvation!  Or, as Christopher West puts it, our bodies proclaim the Gospel!  When we tamper with gender, and earthly marriage, we re-write the theological picture of our salvation through union with Christ.  The complementary differences between male and female are significant pictures of the complementary differences between Christ and us.  Salvation cannot be portrayed as a union of humanity with humanity, or deity with deity, but only as deity with humanity.

How do we respond to this case of Bruce-become-Caitlyn (and the many other cases of gender reassignment that have taken place over the past few decades)?  In some countries (like Iran and Thailand) the procedure has become relatively common for various reasons.  Some people, especially on the right-wing extreme, have declared that they will never call Jenner by the new name, Caitlyn, asserting “that’s not his name and I’m not going to refer to him as a she. He’s a he. He’s a he in every single solitary cell of his body, he will be until the day that God calls him home.”

Theologically, this response is on the right track, but in terms of human relations it is not.  First of all, I’m pretty sure that William Bruce Jenner’s name has been legally changed to Caitlyn, so there’s no reason not to call him Caitlyn.  To make a sticking point of that is to be needlessly combative, not to mention rude.  But do we as Christians have the right to call Caitlyn a woman?  Apart from the myriad social issues possibly involved considering his unrepentant divorces and multiple marriages, his exposure to the famously-dysfunctional Kardashian family, and the obvious social and emotional pressure of self-identifying as the opposite gender despite his body, there’s still the biblical bottom line to face up to: did God make a mistake when he made Caitlyn a male at birth?

Seriously, was that a divine “oops” moment, or is Caitlyn really supposed to be a man after all?

I do not believe that God makes mistakes.  I do believe, however, that we sinful humans make mistakes.  We even make mistakes about our identity.  I know a few people who thought they were called to the celibate priesthood, but eventually realized that they were called to marriage.  I’ve known people who thought they were called to one job, but ended up in a completely different career direction.  I, myself, associate having long hair with my own identity, which is probably insignificant to who I really am; I’m just caught up on this fiddly detail and am too afraid to change it.

So rather than taking the easy way out and claiming that Caitlyn was born in the wrong body, biblical Christian theology frames the issue for us such that we must conclude that Caitlyn has made a mistake (or perhaps a series of mistakes) that lead him to the erroneous conclusion that he’s supposed to be a woman.

But before we get all uppity about how terrible a sinner he is, let us remember how difficult this type of situation is.  Identity is a very precious thing.  When people are interested in Christ and the Gospel, self-identification is often the last thing we want to let go of.  Even for myself, growing up in the faith my entire life, there was a point at which I finally realized that I had to set my desires and self-perceptions aside in order to acknowledge Christ’s utter lordship in my life.  Repentance and turning to Christ in true faith is a complete and total surrender, and that’s really scary and difficult.  I would imagine that many non-christians who read that statement would find it horrifically self-abasing.  But, between the depths of human sin and the perfection of God, there is no alternative: we need God to be the definer of our lives and identities… even over our self-perceived sexual identification.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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2 Responses to Gender and the Image of God

  1. Bill B says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful post, Father. I think that you may have “proved too much” by presuming that “God doesn’t make mistakes” in connection with the biology and genetics of our bodies and minds. What of children born with horrible birth defects that result in their suffering and sometimes shortened lives? Or a simpler defect like deafness, from which I suffer? Or those who are born with organic brain disorders or mental illness (or gender confusion)? To posit that God “intended” that and other anomalous biological outcomes is to subscribe to a branch of Calvinist determinism that I think most Anglicans would not recognize. A more modest approach to the problem presented by the Jenner kerfuffle might be to (1) pray for disordered and potentially sinful individuals like that presented before us in the media, (2) recognize (with thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Peter Kreeft) that we and our world are both fallen through sin, with the consequence that natural evil (like birth defects and mental illness) happens and has been defeated and will be ultimately redeemed by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and, as you note, (3) recognize the difficulty of life by salting our thoughts and speech with a fair dose of humility and caritas toward our neighbors, especially those most in need of the love of God.

    Grace and peace,

    • Fr. Brench says:

      Thank you for the cautious feedback. I was concerned about getting too deterministic in tone, and it can be a fine line to walk sometimes.

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