Gender. It's an incredibly important and hot topic these days, mostly because the issues are so weighty and so personal at the same time. Few issues go to the heart of our humanity and personhood like this one. Thus, we should be careful at all times, to speak of these matters with great care and love, ever conscious of the dignity of human persons. This is core for Christians in every context. Gender and sexuality are sacred issues for us and we must not be careless. Thus, for us, instead of tackling each of the specific issues individually, we're going to start first looking at the character of God, and the nature of humanity He designed. In order to develop shared ground to speak of, we should not start from our experiences, which are varied, and expectations, which could come from different sources. Our controlling mechanism must begin with who God is, and who we are as human beings, so let’s start from there.
We can look at it in 4 main categories:
(A) Gender’s assumption: a common humanity imaging God (Gen 1:26-31)
We begin right at the start with our “assumptions” about gender. These are laid out for us in Gen 1. The chapter may be familiar to many, but its literary features are worth noting. It’s highly unlikely that Gen 1 was meant to be read as a scientific account with all of the expectations of an academic paper. Rather, it is structured more as a prose poem, with certain features like pattern and repetition. The details provided in the creation account of Gen 1 show us that in creation, God has basically set the stage for the creation of men and women – human beings as the crown jewels of His creation. Therefore, the climax of the creation story appropriately peaks with Gen 1:26-31 which leads God to say that creation was “very good”.
Here is some evidence that tell us how God paid unusual attention to the creation of human beings.
The start of the section changes. Instead of “and God said”, which is the repeated header of the passage, there is an intentional break from the structure (i.e., "then" indicating consequence, "let us" indicating deliberation, and the verbal offering of blessing uttered). This suggests that human beings are in a different category from the rest of creation.
We learn God’s intentions in creating man. We are also told that human beings were made in the “image of God”, after the “likeness of God” (Gen 1:26).
A poem is introduced. There is a clear switch in Gen 1:27 from prose to poetry. We see this break in the indented pagination of our Bibles, which cause these verses to stand out to us in clear highlights.
Creation is praised in the superlative. With the creation of man, the things God has made weren’t just "good", but is "very good", with the superlative added for emphasis.
Man receives divine responsibility. Man was also given a job, to have dominion over all creation (Gen 1:28).
What can we observe about the God of Gen 1? God is creative, loving, creates and blesses. He does not creates and leave creation alone to function or fail on its own. This is a God who enjoys what He made, is organized and logical, and is generous in blessing and not stingy or calculative. These character points are important, because these points help us see what God is like. Remember that God makes man in His own image.
More than that, Gen 1:27 introduces the idea of gender into His design for "man in his own image".
The common verb in each line of this poem is “creates”. What does it mean that God “creates” human beings? When God creates, He brings something out of nothing. This is why no one can be the creator except God. He brings forth things out of non-things! This poem emphasizes Who creates, what He creates, and how He creates. God creates Man who represents all mankind. More than that, mankind is created in the image of God, which “male and female” are used as a proxy for in the final line of this poem. The loving, generous, logical, organized God has reflected His nature in male-ness and female-ness. There is something intrinsically god-like in each gender, something sacred and distinct that will require both genders in order to reflect God’s likeness.
Gen 1is teaching us that because of the image of God, every single human being is sacred. We may not think about this often, but all the people we have walked by today, including those who irritated, frustrate or whom compete with us for resources are sacred in His sight. The basic application of Gen 1:26 is that all human beings are worthy of honor and dignity because they have been made to image God. Our gender is a critical part of that image. We need our sacred design to be human, male and female, to show us how to understand and experience God Himself.
It also means that our gender is a basic, unchangeable reality of our humanity. Christians are called to have the highest respect for other human beings, and we ought to be the greatest champion for the value of human beings. How it would change our world if Christians started with this basic principle!
In summary, our gender is a critical reality of how God designed us as people, and we are equally, yet distinctly, part of the image of God.
(B) Gender’s logic: distinct yet equal male and female roles (Gen 2:15-23)
Gen 2 retells the creation of man and woman a second time, this time with greater detail. From Gen 2:15-18, we see that woman was created for man as a “helper fit for him”. At risk of offense, the basic idea here is that man and women were not given existence for themselves alone. We do not find the reason for our existence in ourselves. Humans made in the image of God were always given a purpose to fulfil. Not only does Adam need a companion, he also needs a fit helper to accomplish God’s purpose and mission for humanity. The creation of woman therefore is a gift from a good God, and in doing so, man was to understand that by himself, it is not good. This is the logic of gender, that mle and female need one another. Our culture has distorted this Biblical principle significantly. God has woman for man not because woman is any less, but because man alone is insufficient.
But God doesn’t go on to create the woman immediately. Instead, in the next verses, God parades all the living creatures before Adam (Gen 2:19-20). The “animal parade” was so that Adam could understand a simple principle – that the animals were different from him, and that in the animal kingdom, there was no helper fit for him. This was the lonely thought that must have gone through Adam’s head when he went to sleep. As he slept, God made woman out of man. When Adam woke up, he saw the woman for the first time. How did Adam respond? He responds with poetry and song, just like God in Gen 1. Man made in the image of God also experience God’s joy when he sees Woman. He expresses His joy, obvious from the exclamation “at last” (c.f. Gen 1:23). To see he sees one like him, yet unlike him was an amazing experience for him. Man and woman, who are like and yet unlike, are made in the image of God to reveal a great mystery in the Godhead. With the three persons of the Trinity, God in Himself is both like and unlike in Himself. In other words, the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit and the Spirit is not the Father. Yet, the Father, Son and Spirit are all equally, God. Similarly, woman is not man and man is not woman. Yet woman and man are both equally, human.
Is it possible than when we look at gender, which has a divine function to reveal the image of God, we are looking at God described in some mysteriously ways? As much as the Father, Son and Spirit are God yet are not the same, so it is too that both men and women are made in the image of God, but are also not the same. In our baptisms, we are immersed into the “one name” of the Three-personned God. There is 1 God, 3 persons in perfect unity, and this God has created man and woman to image Him. Both the equality (like) and distinction (unlike) of gender must be held together if we are to understand the divine logic of gender, revealing the image of God Himself.
To sum up, the logic of gender is that two distinct types of creatures (male and female unlike one another) with different roles are simultaneously equally (like) in God’s image, human and sacred.
(C) Gender’s trajectory: God’s idea of covenant marriage (Gen 2:24-25 c.f. SoS 8:1-7, Eph 5:1-33)
In Gen 2:23-24, this woman is not just “woman” but for the first time, called his “wife”. Here, we are also introduced to the idea of “leaving and cleaving” in the marriage relationship between one man and one woman woman. When he comments on this passage in Matt 19:3-6, Jesus goes back to Gen 2 to reiterate and affirm that He believes and endorses this principle. He attributes this truth to God Himself and His design. Thus, God who created is the same God who invented marriage. Marriage is therefore not human construct but is a “divine construct”. As God designed marriage, He built gender into its design. Marriage is God’s idea of 2 people who are unlike types (male and female) joined in covenant one-flesh union.
This is the trajectory of gender. It is necessary for marriage to exist. This does not mean that every male and every female must get married, of course. But what we are seeing from Gen 2 and Matt 19 is that gender and marriage are sacred ideas that need to be held together.
This idea of marriage gets fleshed out in the rest of the Bible from between Gen 2 and Matt 19, and even after:
In the Song of Solomon, we see a divinely inspired story of love in the Bible that gives us an idea of what God-designed marriage is to look like. Song of Solomon 4:9-10 speaks of a captivated desire of a man for a woman. Song of Solomon 8:3-7 also presents the desire of a woman for a man in both powerfully emotional and sexual ways. This may be shocking for us to consider that the desire of woman for a man, which seems very progressive and radical, is enshrined here in God’s word. The desire between man and woman in marriage here is powerful, binding and exclusively, love. Thus, the Bible speaks of love and marriage in positive ways with passion and desire which is both mutual and equal.
In the New Testament, texts like Heb 13:4 and Eph 5:1-8 present the truth that sexuality must be respected by honoring its unique place within the marriage design. Sexual union is an expression of like and unlike being joined together in the “one flesh” union of marriage. Anything outside of that context is “porneia” – “perversion” or sexual immorality. However, because of the rebellion of our sin nature, we are prone to commit sexual immorality because we experience sin or want to experience it outside of marriage. This is the reality of sexual sin which includes lust, pornography, adultery, fantasy and idolatry.
A key text, Eph 5:21-33, reminds us that there is a cosmic purpose for marriage, which is to reflect and image Christ and the church. Jesus and the church are pictured as a husband and wife. Thus our marriages are symbols meant to reflect the reality of Jesus’ relationship with the church. Often we get it the other way round and think that Jesus and the church are like our marriages. How does this work? Jesus and the church are 2 distinct and unlike entities. Jesus is the divine bridegroom from heaven, and the church, sinners redeemed from the earth to belong to Him. Therefore, marriage is a picture of their union. If we confuse the idea of marriage and corrupt the design of our distinct genders, we sacrifice the glory of God’s design for what marriage is.
In short, God has enshrined our human genders (male and female) in marriage as the context for sexual one-flesh union, which is the vehicle to image and represent the union between Christ and His church.
(D) Gender’s challenges: loneliness, confusion and heartache – all ultimately for Jesus
Gender, sexuality and marriage all sound ideal at this point. But reality is far from this idyllic depiction. What do we do with the ways that reality does not look like this?
Jesus, in Matt 19:7-12, anticipates two big problems that will arise with respect to marriage and sexuality.
First, He acknowledges that marriage this side of heaven is tainted and broken. We know this. But notice what Jesus is saying. He recognizes that people will get married and yet seek divorce, but that does not cause Him to waver or shirk back from the truth that marriage is God’s idea. Even more, He is insistent that breaking marriage means sexual immorality. He tells us the cause for us, which is our sin. He adds that after we sin, we will try to justify it in the “hardness of [our] hearts”. While sections A to C still hold true in His teaching, Jesus also affirms that gender and marriage as we experience is still broken. Yet, the brokenness of marriage does not negate its value, design and purpose.
Second, Jesus acknowledges that without diminishing God’s design for gender and marriage, gender and sexuality this side of heaven is not everything. The disciples go on to ask if it’s better not to get married at all. Jesus speaks of 3 kinds of eunuchs: (i) eunuchs from birth, (ii) eunuchs by men, and (iii) eunuchs who have become eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is saying that although God designed us male and female, there will be those who do not neatly fall into that binary gender categories, due to many reasons. He includes those who by nature have sexual organs that are neither male nor female, those who have gender traits adjusted or changed by human will and procedure, and those who lay aside gender’s trajectory to be marriage for God’s sake.
What is Jesus saying here? He knows that Gen 2 says that “it is not good for the man to be alone”, yet He affirms that in His kingdom, marriage, gender and sexuality should not define us. His answer to the disciples is to say that married or not, eunuch or not, there is a greater fulfilment and satisfaction than that of our gendered design. Our greatest fulfilment is in Jesus Himself. Consider that in Jesus Himself we have one who loves us uniquely. Jesus understands our struggles and temptations with gender and loves us anyway. If we feel single and unhappy, remember that Jesus isn’t just the Bridegroom for the Bride, He is actually single, unconsummated and still waiting for His Bride to come. He waits for us, the love of His life. In another sense, He was a single man in His lifetime on earth, a eunuch who made Himself one for the kingdom of heaven. He understands our sexual challenges, every single one. And in Him, we find one who knows our frame.
Loneliness can be a reality and a challenge for all, regardless of gender. The struggles that some of us face may be experienced differently. For some, it may be being attracted to someone you’re not made to be, resulting in lots of confusion and heartache. But Jesus reminds and encourages us that all of life, even our gender and all the struggles associated with it, is ultimately for Jesus. It is not wasted and He knows.
In summary, Jesus acknowledges the challenges to gender, sexuality and marriage this side of heaven head on, yet without denying the teaching of gender’s design, He points to Himself as the all-satisfying source of our ultimate identity, male, female or otherwise.
In closing, here are some reflection questions for your further reflection:
Besides the obvious physiological differences, what does Genesis tell us about the “logic of gender” according to God? How does this help us understand God’s design for humanity?
What happens when we lose the balance between “distinct yet equal” when we talk about male and female?
If in the gospel Jesus Christ awaits the consummation of His true bride, the Church, He is thus both single and married, unfulfilled and bethrothed. What comfort do you think this offers those who struggle with the challenges of gender, marriage, singlehood and relationships?