Toward a Better Biblical Understand of Gender, Sex and Patriarchy

“The Church of England welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmation of trans people,” declares new guidance for Anglican clergy, “equally with all people, within the body of Christ, and rejoices in the diversity of that body into which all Christians have been baptised by one Spirit.”

With its new guidance, the Church of England outlines services to recognize transitions by transgender people and even offers an “Affirmation of Baptism” service to celebrate trans identities. By doing so, the church also joins a slew of other mainline Protestant denominations in welcoming and supporting transgender people.

(Fotografias Emergentes / Creative Commons)

In 2003, the United Church of Christ adopted an affirmation of “the participation and ministry of transgender people” and called for supporting trans civil and human rights; the denomination, which has long observed the Transgender Day of Remembrance, has also developed a curriculum to teach about transgender people and issues.

In 2012, the Alliance of Baptists called on churches and community leaders to work to end discrimination and violence against transgender people, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has likewise issued statements supporting trans people and encouraging adoption of policies to end discrimination against trans people.

Just this year, the USA Presbyterian Church voted to affirm its commitment to the full dignity and humanity of transgender people and people of all gender identities—and while United Methodists have continued to struggle with sexual and gender identity issues, the denomination has appointed a transgender deacon and affirmed the ordination of a transgender pastor.

And although Anglicans themselves are divided—one lay member of the Church’s General Synod even railed against “the falsehoods and myths of transgender ideology”—Bishop of Blackburn Julian Henderson, who authored the document, is standing firm. “We are absolutely clear that everyone is made in the image of God and that all should find a welcome in their parish Church,” he said in a statement. “This new guidance provides an opportunity, rooted in scripture, to enable trans people who have ‘come to Christ as the way, the truth and the life’, to mark their transition in the presence of their Church family which is the body of Christ.”

Beyond mainline Protestant denominations, however, many Christian churches continue to condemn and ostracize transgender people. In 2017, a group of Catholic bishops and other leaders issued an open letter—titled “Created Male and Female”—arguing that all people have inherent dignity, but sexual difference is binary and ordained by God. The letter describes transgender identity as a “false idea” that is “deeply troubling” and calls for policies that reinforce binary gender identities as assigned based on biological characteristics at birth.

In a 2014 resolution, the Southern Baptist Convention stated that “God’s good design [is] that gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception—a perception which is often influenced by fallen human nature in ways contrary to God’s design” and reiterated their opposition to “all cultural efforts to validate claims to transgender identity.” Franklin Graham called transgender people “weirdos that want to force themselves into girls’ locker rooms and to women’s bathrooms,” and defended his abrasiveness by claiming that “Jesus wasn’t real loving sometimes.

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s student conduct policy likewise explicitly declares that “we regard sex at birth as the identification of the given biological sex of each member of our constituency,” and that “we must view the actions or intentions of those seeking fundamental changes of any kind from one’s sex at birth as a rejection of the biblical and theological understandings to which Southern Seminary is committed.”

Those “biblical and theological understandings” that underpin Christian transphobia are exactly the problem. Affirming mainline churches have embraced trans people within a theology of God’s inclusive love and created diversity—and challenged racism, sexism, homophobia and poverty as well with an intersectional social justice framework that centers on fundamental dignity, worth and equality of all people. The biblical and theological understandings of churches who oppose transgender people, however, are rooted in gender hierarchies.

In traditional Christian thinking, gender and sex are the same, rooted in biology and acknowledged as immutable from birth. According to this train of thought, God has ordained this sex/gender binary, and the gender hierarchies that attend it, with women excluded from ordained ministry and submissive to male headship in the home. This is connected to the deep discomfort about bodies many Christians feel; after all, in many traditions the body is equated with sin and worldliness—and mostly women. The body therefore needs to be controlled, and clear gender roles need to be kept in place to maintain order (read: patriarchy).

Transgender identities challenge the assertions that gender is fixed and contingent upon sex—and with them, the hierarchies of gender that depend on a fixed and inherent gender binary. This challenge upends men’s claim to leadership, power and dominance in the church and the family.

Nevermind that the Bible itself recognizes more than two genders—that eunuchs play important roles in biblical narratives, and that queer biblical scholars have pointed to them as examples of gender and sexual diversity in the text. “There are some eunuchs,” Jesus himself said in the book of Matthew, “which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”

By creating guidelines to welcome transgender people in the Church of England, Anglicans have affirmed gender diversity and joined with other progressive Christians in expressing theologies and practices of inclusion rooted in subversive and often hidden histories of the church and hearkening to Jesus’ own words and ministry.

The truth is the biblical witness is much more complicated than many traditionalists admit. One creation narrative tells us that humans were created in the image of God—but if both male and female bodies are the nature of God, could we not then think of God as the one who encompasses all genders and crosses genders? Could we not imagine the transgender God?

As a whole, the Christian church still has much work to do to embody the love of the God it professes. For the progressive church, offering alternatives to traditional, conservative and exclusionary theologies and practices is essential, albeit not enough. Still, the Church of England’s Affirmation of Baptism service for folks who are transitioning is one small start.


Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.