Editors’ note: 

This excerpt is adapted from Denny Burk’s new book What Is the Meaning of Sex? (Crossway)

A few years ago I was invited to speak at a youth conference on the topic of “gender confusion.” At the time, I could hardly think of a more relevant theme. From television shows like Modern Family to Lady Gaga’s pop anthem “Born This Way,” our popular culture reflects the underlying confusion about what it means to live in this world as male and female. Kids today are awash in a gender-bending popular culture. So I was eager to address these students and to bring the Bible to bear upon something I consider to be one of the touchstone issues of post-Christian America. So there I was in front of about 100 junior high and high school students, delivering a message that had grown out of many hours of study and preparation. But nothing I had read before the session prepared me for the question I was about to face.

At the conclusion of my talk, a youth minister from a small church in the area approached me for advice on how to deal with a perplexing pastoral situation he was facing. A young girl in his youth group had recently decided she wanted to become a boy. My usual reaction to a conundrum like this would be to advise the girl of what the Bible teaches about how God created us as male and female, how Christians must embrace what God made us to be, and how God has a design for her life as a female. But there was more to this young girl’s story than a spontaneous desire to change genders. There was an additional detail that would turn my usual response on its head.

This particular girl had been born with a rare biological condition that made it difficult at birth to determine whether she was a girl or a boy. The condition is known as “intersex,” and intersexed persons are born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical pattern for female or male. Until relatively recently, the most common medical treatment for intersex has been for doctors to recommend a gender, to encourage the parents to embrace that gender, to surgically reshape the genitals and reproductive organs accordingly, and to advise parents not to express any ambiguity to the child about their selected gender. The young woman in question had undergone such surgery as an infant but now as a teen felt she wasn’t really a girl after all. She felt her parents had made the wrong choice about what sex she was, and now she was in the midst of an identity crisis. She wanted to become what she felt she was born to be. She wanted to be a boy.

So the youth minister asked me, “What should I say to them? How do I minister to this student and her family?” I confess I was at a bit of a loss to answer his question. Not because I didn’t know what the Bible teaches, but because I didn’t know what intersex was. As I struggled to apply Scripture to a condition I’d never even heard of, it occurred to me that at the heart of this minister’s query was a question about sex—not sex narrowly conceived as sexual acts, but more broadly conceived as gender and sexuality. At the root of his difficulty was a desire to know how the Bible’s normative teaching about manhood and womanhood speaks to this difficult situation.

Collision with Reality

How would you have answered this guy’s question? Do you have the biblical and theological wherewithal to speak truth into this morally confounding situation? Do you know what the Bible teaches about gender? About sex? About human sexuality in general? Do you know if it even addresses these issues at all? Does the existence of intersex throw into question your belief in the Bible’s teaching that God created humans in his image as male and female (Gen. 1:27)?

My first conversation about intersex highlighted for me a larger issue—the need for Christians to understand what the Bible teaches and how it applies to the various ethical challenges we face. It occurred to me during that conversation that we need to not only understand the problem (the child’s intersex condition and all the life complications that stemmed from it) but to also understand what Scripture actually says about human sexuality.

Sadly, this latter point is one we can no longer assume.

Not only has biblical literacy declined in our day, but so has the Bible’s cultural influence on sexual mores. Whereas there used to be broad cultural consensus about gender norms and sexual morality, that’s no longer the case in the contemporary West. As Christopher Ash observed in his book Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, “Western societies are witnessing sexual relationships characterized by . . . lower levels of public commitment than before, which are proving more transient than previously, with fewer children, and in which a succession of public sexual partners is increasingly common.” We can no longer assume consensus even among those who name themselves as Christians. From the progressive wing of evangelicalism to the more liberal mainline, many “Christian” groups have accommodated themselves to the spirit of the age. The result has been a sustained assault on what the Bible teaches about gender and sexuality. This crisis of faith has undermined the faithfulness of many congregations. These churches and their leaders have given up on biblical sexual ethics and turned elsewhere for guidance.

This larger cultural pressure has influenced many Bible-believing churches as well. Many pastors and teachers simply don’t want to push back in a countercultural sort of way, being content to remain silent about God’s teaching about these flashpoints in the larger culture war. Meanwhile, however, their congregations are floundering in misunderstanding and false teaching about human sexuality. Many Christians have little training in what it means to be created in the image of God as male and female.

It’s rightly been said that where there’s a mist in the pulpit, there’s a fog in the pew. In the absence of clear, biblical teaching on gender and sexuality, people tend to get folded in to the Bible-ignoring zeitgeist. Unfortunately, that’s where too many evangelical Christians have drifted.