Friday, August 15, 2008


‘…He might be a father, be he sure aint no dad…’

Following on a post I did earlier about complementarianism, I wrote an email to The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CMWM), a main complementarian organization, regarding gender definitions. I referred them to an Op-Ed in the New York Times by Jennifer Boylan regarding gender determination in the Olympics, and I asked them for their comments on this issue.

As you recall, complementarians believe in Biblically defined gender roles, with men in leadership positions. Of course, for this to work, logically one must define ‘male’ and ‘female.’ So I asked them if the Bible defines those words, and for their take on intersex issues. And they kindly responded:


Thanks for writing and alerting us to this op/ed piece in the NY Times. Later today we will be posting on our blog about this very issue.

Briefly, the Scriptures speak loudly by what they do not say explicitly. God’s created order: “He made the [sic] male and female…” reveals God’s will as clearly as one could want, namely that He ordained two sexes for the sake of his own glory. Beyond that the Scriptures are clear that in rare cases (castration, intentional eunuchs, etc) reproduction is ended, but sexuality (ie: manhood and womanhood) continues. This is the way in which Galatians 3:28 can be understood as well. When it says, “There is neither male nor female….for all are one in Christ” it means that before the Cross of Christ no one can boast in their gender. It does not mean that sexuality ends as a part of God’s creation and formative for each person’s human identity. In fact, it is not the obliteration of gender distinctives, but the peaceful unity of the two distinct genders that brings glory to God.

Ian, your questions and participation on the blog are highly welcome. Thanks for writing. We look forward to more interaction as God leads.

With Kind Regards,

Brent Nelson

A couple of things to note – first the letter doesn’t answer the question about definitions of male and female (though they address that in their blog post - more on that later). But they do correctly point out two parts of scripture that potentially address intersex issues. The Bible is quite specific through these interpretations on intersex – it doesn’t exist, as the quote from Genesis 1:27 (So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. [KJV]) attests. As well, the famous Galatians quote (There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. [KJV]) is not about dissolving gender distinctions in today’s context, but through the baptism in Christ. At least according to complementarians; egalitarians interpret that differently as I had mentioned earlier. But the Galatians quote doesn’t specifically allow for intersex situations.

Although definitions were not mentioned in the letter, CMWM did address the issue in the blog post they mentioned. Some relevant quotes:

‘…Amazingly, there is radical disagreement over a methodology for distinguishing a woman from man, and whether or not such differentiation is even possible…She [Boylan] concludes that "gender is malleable and elusive, and we need to become comfortable with this fact, rather than be afraid of it." She understands that gender can only be determined by the heart of the individual and how that individual lives in daily life.

Unfortunately, the Bible does not consider a sin-tainted heart to be a reliable guide; rather "the heart is deceitful above all things" (Jeremiah 17:9). A male athlete who feels in his heart that he is a woman should not trust his heart. Instead, he should rely on the Word of God and find some male opponents.

Scripture presents gender as a binary condition, not a shifting continuum from male to female. When God created man in his image, the Bible says, "male and female He created them" (Genesis 1:27). The Bible does not provide an explicit list of characteristics to distinguish a woman from a man, because it was understood to be self-evident (c.f. the reaction of Adam in Genesis 2:23).

Boylan's statistic is consistent with this divine truth and actually argues against her position: if 1 in 20,000 women carry a Y chromosome, then 19.999 in 20,000 do not. Any lab test that can objectively identify a female 99.995% of the time would be considered an extremely reliable guide to a binary understanding of gender. Even among the exceptional .005% of women who carry a Y chromosome, most are feminine in appearance and are able to bear children. Because this is a fallen world, there are birth defects that affect all parts of the human anatomy, but these extremely rare defects do not invalidate the binary nature of God's good design of manhood and womanhood…’

So the Bible doesn’t provide a definition of ‘male’ or ‘female’ as it is ‘self-evident.’ Genesis 2:23 (And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. [KJV]) is perhaps odd, as the definition of woman refers to being ‘taken out of man,’ and doesn’t seem to be a good example of ‘self evidence’ of gender definitions. But their point remains – no specific scriptural definitions exist for the definitions; instead it’s obvious what is male and female.

But I find this unsatisfactory, for it’s not obvious to me. And the problem with binaries is that they are by design universal, and must hold for all examples; one exception voids the concept of ‘binary.’ When scripture says that ‘all are male or female’, then there is no allowance for exceptions.

The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) has a list of differing intersex conditions and their frequency, which range from ‘Complete gonadal dysgenesis’ at a rate of 1 in 150,000 people to ‘Late Onset Adrenal Hyperplasia’ at a rate of 1 in 66 people. According to the ISNA, the total number of people whose bodies differ from what are standard (‘self-obvious’) male and female patterns is 1 in 100. Now, to paraphrase the CMWM, that small number could be a reliable guide to a binary understanding of gender. Except that 1 in 100 people means that over 65 million people in the world fall into this category, or the equivalent of more than the entire population of France.

The issue of the ‘extremely rare’ defects that result from this being a fallen world ‘not invalidating the binary nature of God’s good design of manhood and womanhood’ fails to address this. For if the binary is to hold, then 65 million people need to be categorized as either male or female. Otherwise they cannot logically be assigned scripturally defined gender roles. So what are the standards? Genitalia? Chromosomes? Capability to give birth? If the Bible doesn’t provide the standards, then someone has to. I look forward to CMWM’s answer to this.