The False Gospel of Gender Binaries

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Not long ago I had the pleasure of working with Adrian,* a visual artist with a quick wit, easygoing spirit, and creative eye. After an afternoon of laugher and collaboration, Adrian opened up about what it’s been like working with other religious people, particularly evangelicals. 

“I’m intersex,” Adrian said, with a shrug of the shoulders. “Evangelicals don’t have a category for me, so there’s no real place for me in their church.” 

(Intersex is a term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. Learn more here.) 

Adrian’s words hurt my heart, but I knew they were true. Over the past two years, I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed by transgender Christians (people whose gender identities differ from what is associated with the sex they were assigned at birth), and of course by gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians.  Often I hear of childhoods plagued by bullying, exclusion, depression, and fear, all made worse when the churches that were supposed to love and care for them rejected them because they did not fit into rigid gender binaries. 

“God made male and female,” culture warriors like to thunder. “Any deviation from traditional gender and sexuality norms represents a serious sin and threat to the gospel.”** 

This claim is often punctuated by advocacy for rigid, hierarchal gender roles based on stereotypes in which all men are described as being “wired” one way (as providers, leaders, and fighters), and all women are described as being “wired” another way (as followers, nurturers, and homemakers).   

Even the Vatican reinforced this message this week in an international forum on marriage where “complementarity between man and woman in marriage” was described by Pope Francis as “the root of marriage and family.” 

While most people indeed have a heterosexual orientation and identify with a single gender that was assigned to them at birth, it has become increasingly clear that this is not the case for everyone, that gender and sexuality might better be understood as manifesting themselves along continuums, with male/female, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual existing at the poles but with a variety of identities, orientations, and expressions in between.  Science and psychology continue to confirm this as a reality, with the American Psychological Association no longer characterizing variations in sexual orientation and gender identity as disorders, only warning that stigmatization based on them can negatively affect mental health.  

People do not typically choose their sexual orientations or gender identities the way one might choose to wear a watch or to take cream in their coffee. Most of my gay and lesbian friends recall feeling different from a young age, frightened at the prospect of being disowned from their families and cast out of their churches because of something they simply could not change. Efforts intended to reverse sexual orientation through prayer and counseling, once popular within evangelicalism, have proven not only ineffective, but destructive, leading to multiple apologies from former leaders of those movements. Sadly, for many LGBT Christians, those apologies came too late, and the messages they received through "conversion therapy" led them into marriages based on secrets, or, tragically, to suicide. 

Nearly all of us would fail to conform to the generalizations made by the most strident complementarians, but intersex people like Adrian, and LGBT people like those you might meet at The Gay Christian Network, are truly in the minority. And unfortunately, they are consistently subjected to stigmatization and marginalization by religious people who refuse to share bathrooms with them, who disassociate with churches that welcome them, who mock and ridicule them and compare them to pedophiles and idolaters, and who withhold money from charities that employ them. Christians are told that sharing civil liberties with LGBT people constitutes religious persecution, that sexual minorities should induce a “gag reflex,” and that defending gender binaries is as essential as defending the gospel itself. 

But what sort of gospel is only good news for the majority? What sort of gospel leaves people behind just because they are different? 

The gospel of Jesus Christ is not so fragile as to be unpinned by the reality that variations in gender and sexuality exist, nor is it so narrow as to only be good news for people who look and live like Ward and June Cleaver. This glorification of gender binaries has become a dangerous idol in the Christian community, for it conflates cultural norms with Christian morality and elevates an ideal over actual people.  

No doubt some will argue that we cannot build our theologies around “exceptions” like Adrian. When I bring up intersex people in conversations about gender and sexuality, I am typically met with blank stares, shrugged shoulders, and dismissive platitudes about how most people fit neatly into male and female categories and generalities, so we shouldn’t worry about the outliers. 

But if Jesus started with the outliers, why we shouldn’t we? If Jesus started with the poor, the sick, the marginalized, and the minorities then why would we dismiss them as irrelevant to our theology of gender and sexuality? 

I can’t help but think of the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8. He was a sexual and ethnic minority, and it was considered “unbiblical” for him to even enter the assembly of God, much less be baptized (Leviticus 21:20; Deuteronomy 23:1).  But when the eunuch learned about the gospel through his reading of Isaiah and the witness of Philip, his response is profound: “Look! There is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Philip could easily have responded by quoting Bible verses and appealing to tradition.  He could have dismissed the eunuch as an anomaly, not worth the time and effort to fight for his inclusion in this new family of God. But instead, Philip baptized the eunuch in the first body of water the two could find. He remembered that what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in….starting with you and me. 

Now, I’m not suggesting we abandon conversations about the Bible and sexual ethics, nor am I interested in promoting a “genderless society” (as some have bizarrely claimed, somehow supposing that acknowledging the existence of gray requires dismissing the existence of black and white). I am suggesting, however, that Jesus didn’t die on the cross to preserve gender complementarity. Jesus didn’t die on the cross to ensure that little girls wear pink and little boys wear blue. Jesus lived, taught, died, and rose again to start a new family in which Jew and gentile, slave and free, male and female are all part of one holy Body. Certainly there will be those who reject the gospel because of the cost of discipleship, but let it be because of the cost of discipleship, not the cost of false fundamentals, not because they've been required to change something they cannot change. 

There is this tendency within certain sectors of Christianity to assume that if our theology “works” for relatively privileged (often for straight, upper-middle-class, Western men), then it should work well enough for everyone else, and the rest of the world should conform to it. But if our theology doesn’t “work” for the least of these to whom Jesus first brought the gospel and through whom Jesus still presents himself today, then it doesn’t work at all. 

If the gospel’s not good news for Adrian, then it’s not good news.


*Name changed to protect privacy.

**And because someone is bound to bring it up, here is Matthew 19:4 in context. As you see, Jesus is responding to a question about divorce, not about gender binaries. 

Finally, be sure to check out Dr. David Gushee's recent lecture at the Reformation Project entitled, "Ending the Teaching of Contempt Against Sexual Minorities."

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