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Courage, and Tactics, in the Gender Debate

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In the movie Aladdin, the lead character serenades his love interest with now-classic words:

A whole new world / A new fantastic point of view / No one to tell us “No!” or where to go / Or say we’re only dreaming.

These lyrics could also describe our culture’s efforts to redefine gender. And these efforts definitely aren’t dreams: legislatures are already passing speech codes for personal pronoun use, making school dress codes gender-less, and adding multiple categories for gender on government documents. And if a Christian disagrees? The reaction is more than mere social pressure; at times, political violence has erupted as one group’s vision for humanity overrides others in the name of “rights.”

Sadly, many in the church are knowingly and unknowingly adopting this brave new worldview.  They don’t recognize how they’re being manipulated to embrace new categories of humanity in the name of compassion. As scholar Peter Jones notes, “The pressure comes from two directions: from hardhearted ideologues determined to silence the Christian understanding of identity, and from kindhearted Christians fearful of placing demands on suffering people and making the gospel appear heartless.”

To confront this crisis, church leaders must pivot toward apologetics. By regularly contrasting pagan anthropologies with the biblical witness, we can show the shortcomings of the new prevailing worldview—and the soundness of Christian theology.

Philosophical Categories

Reclaiming apologetic preaching and teaching around fundamental philosophical categories of personhood prepares Christians for a smart and effective witness concerning gender issues.

Key to the gender debate is what makes a person, and how one’s gender is integral (or not) to that personhood. Christian theology gives us what we need to navigate this evolving cultural frontier. The Old and New Testaments are the foundation on which much of the Western tradition bases its ideas of a person: divinely created, made in the divine image, marred by sin, redeemable by faith in the Lord Jesus, and charged to share his love in word and deed. This understanding of personhood in turn undergirds the West’s global gifts of human rights, democracy, private property, contractual arrangements, and free enterprise.

Without this framework, many values that our culture holds dear will collapse. If a person isn’t created in the divine image, by what authority do humans possess dignity that deserves respect? If gender is fluid, why aren’t other categories too? If humans aren’t redeemable, what’s the point of restorative justice? If there is no objective moral framework, why is it wrong for people to hoard material goods and power for themselves?

Power of Story

Though debating gender issues requires engagement on the level of philosophical categories, it’s also helpful to tell stories. In particular, stories that go against the cultural grain can open eyes to see situations in a new light. Ministers therefore need an anthology of real-world examples that question our culture’s understanding of gender, biology, society, and personhood.

Here are three brief examples.

On gender: My college buddy’s daughter, Sara, told him three times as a child that she wanted to be a boy. She wanted the attention her brothers got and felt burdened by expectations as a young lady. Was she crying out to be male? Clearly not. Child psychologists tell us this is a natural part of childhood. Today Sara gladly embraces her femininity and calling as a woman of God. Gender is biological, and gender is social, and a strong social fabric helps lead children to the future God has in store for them. As we discern between gender dysphoria and common issues in child development, we may be helped by counseling and mental-health assistance with a biblical worldview.

On society: My friend Jan is biologically female in terms of physiology and chromosomes, but she embraces a butch queer identity while living a lesbian lifestyle. I watched Jan over the years shift from a tomboy, to a celibate woman with same-sex attraction pursuing Christian ordination, to her professed identity today in a denomination that accepts the pagan worldview. Are we willing to relativize everything we know about a person and create hundreds of identities and orientations for both gender and sexuality that are up for grabs? Does nature, let alone God, provide some degree of order and placement for the self?

On biology: Some young adults are reversing the decades of hormone treatments—and even genital reconstructive surgery—that their parents and medical professionals inflicted on them in their childhood. Some in the medical community are now calling such premature actions “child abuse.” I’m hesitant to let more children suffer until additional research into gender dysphoria can suggest alternative ways for helping people develop well.

Personal stories related to major philosophical categories are weighty, convincing, and helpful for today’s witness.

Need for Courage

Finally, ministers need courage. It’s risky to counter fashionable narratives and agendas. Historical figures, the Word of God, and the witness of the early church, therefore, inspire us.

Had not Moses, Paul, Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, Dorothy Sayers, or Martin Luther King, Jr. worked against prevailing tides, what sort of world would we inhabit? We often celebrate their accomplishments with little regard to their daily lives, their deep stress, and their moments of doubt, confusion, and frustration. But they overcame, and so can we.

We can find in encouragement in God’s Word and its message of courage. Hear Moses’s charge to Israel in the face of the Amorites:

Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you. (Deut. 31:6)

Likewise, the boldness of the apostles in the chapters following Pentecost (Acts 2–5) should also steel us. For the same power and comfort of the Holy Spirit is available to us today.

Our Challenge

Kevin DeYoung reminds us that the ongoing sexual revolution is one of the major challenges of our times:

Profoundly different versions of sexual morality cannot be wished away by civil discourse (though civility is good), nor washed away by theological compromise (that would be bad). “Because the problem of sex is inevitably tied to the problem of Christianity’s relation to the world, it is a tension that will surface during any great readjustment in the relationship between Christianity and the world” (160). In other words, the problem is not going away. Let’s hope the church’s winsome commitment to beauty and truth doesn’t either.

We of this generation are leading Christ’s church, square in the middle of a great readjustment. May we be courageous for the task.

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