Sexuality refers to God’s anthropological design and pattern for the procreative relationship between male and female and to the experience of erotic desire within that design. Gender refers to biological differences in male and female embodiment and the different cultural ways in which the creational distinctions between male and female are manifested.
Sexuality refers to God’s anthropological design and pattern for the procreative relationship between male and female and to the experience of erotic desire within that design. Gender refers to biological differences in male and female embodiment and the different cultural ways in which the creational distinctions between male and female are manifested. The creational narrative of Genesis 1–2 provides the Christian with the foundational truths behind these distinctions: God created humanity, male and female, in his image for one another. To deny any part of this teaching is to subject God’s purposeful design to the desires of humanity. While much of modern culture desires to deny these distinctions and to untether gender from sexuality, the New Testament reaffirms the Old Testament’s teaching on this topic and brings the male-female distinction to its culmination in the Christ-Church relationship.
A Christian framework for gender and sexuality begins with understanding that each find their origin, structure, and purpose within God’s will for creation. Gender and sexuality, from a Christian perspective, are enchanted realities imbued with divine meaning and purpose. But as the drama of Scripture unfolds, gender and sexuality become impacted by sin. Yet, in light of redemption, the original design and purpose of gender and sexuality are reaffirmed and heightened as the New Testament explains their ultimate telos—to reflect the Christ-Church union. The assumption that gender and sexuality are ordered by God, and for God, stands in stark contrast to modernity’s view that divinizes gender and sexuality, understanding both to be ordered to, and determined by, consent and human will alone.
Sexuality and Gender in God’s Design
When speaking of sexuality and gender, what is meant by these terms?
Sexuality can have broad and narrow meanings. In a broad rendering, sexuality refers to God’s anthropological design and pattern for the procreative relationship between male and female. In a narrower scope, sexuality refers to the experience of erotic desire. Accordingly, in Scripture, sexuality is a constitutive part of human nature and human experience shaped by God’s will for creation; it is not the singular defining aspect of human identity itself.
Gender can also have broad and narrow connotations. More broadly, gender refers to biological differences in male and female embodiment. Narrowly speaking, gender refers to the creational distinctions between male and female manifested in culture (e.g., baby girls adorned in pink; baby boys adorned in blue). Gender should be understood as the cultural reality resulting from God making men and women biologically sexed and distinct. Christians need to understand that as partakers of God’s good creation, we are to acknowledge and participate in culturally-appropriate gender distinctions. This is because each culture discovers culturally-defined ways to reflect the biological and created difference of men and women. This means Christians should abide by the gender norms set by their culture insofar as what the culture dictates does not transgress God’s moral law for upholding the sex distinction between male and female (Deut. 22:5; 1 Cor. 11:3–16). For example, cross-dressing is sinful because it violates the creational boundaries between male and female that come to be expressed in culturally-appropriate gender norms. We ought to care about the gender distinctions our culture holds up since gender distinctions are a common grace mechanism for acknowledging the innate differences of males from females.
Sexuality and gender are first made known in the creational accounts of Scripture. In Genesis 1:26–28, we read of God creating man and woman in His image. Equal in their dignity, but different in their design and calling, the man and woman are then commissioned to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion.” Genesis 1 communicates both the identity of male and female, and that this identity is oriented toward a procreative union meant to populate the earth. Seen through this light, gender and sexuality are substantive pillars in fulfilling what theologians refer to as the cultural mandate.
In another rendering of humanity’s origins, we read in Genesis 2 that it is not good for man to be alone; that a helper was needed. This helper is both similar and dissimilar; similar in her humanity, yet dissimilar in her design. The man and woman—as counterparts—are intended to form a complementary union. In 2:24, it is written that “Then a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” This language is at once both figurative and literal; figurative in that it describes the establishing of a distinct family unit; literal in that it testifies to the bodily union for which male and female anatomy are designed. This sexual pattern is the archetype for the Bible’s expectation for human sexual arrangements.
Several axiomatic truths related to gender and sexuality are found in the Genesis 1–2 narrative.
- God created. A Christian understanding for gender and sexuality begins with a foundational assumption about the universe itself. The Triune God is a God of order, not chaos, and random combination. Christians believe that the Triune God alone brings reality into existence. Reality and human experience are not self-creating or self-constituting. Christians confess that the God who creates the cosmos is the holy, sovereign, and just God who orders all aspects of reality—including sexuality and gender. Gender and sexuality are not evolutionary quirks; both find their origin in the creative will of God.
- God created humanity. A Christian understanding for gender and sexuality also begins with a foundational assumption about human nature. God is the creator of humanity, and as such, has the right to speak authoritatively over our lives. We are his subjects, and sexuality and gender are constitutive aspects of God’s rule over humanity. We are not self-creating or self-constituting. Sexuality and gender, then, are not plastic and endlessly malleable to fit human preference. Rather like the body, Christians believe that gender and sexuality are purposefully ordered to fit God’s will for humanity (1 Cor. 6:13). This means obedience and a commitment to living in line with God’s creative will is where holiness and human flourishing form an intersection.
- God created humanity in His image. Genesis speaks of God making man and woman in His image. Theologians debate all that being made in God’s image entails, but in general, we can say that we image God in our relational dimension, our structural design, and our functional capacity. While exercising caution to not reduce sexuality and gender as the defining marks of bearing God’s image, it is appropriate to assume that they contribute to the entirety of what it means to bear God’s image. Humanity existing in male and female iterations implies that our sexual design and gendered existence are participants in the fundamental nobility and dignity that human beings are said to possess because of being made in God’s image. To be made in God’s image means that no part of our humanity is purposeless or irrelevant to God’s creative intention.
- God created humanity male and female. When God created humanity, He did not make us sexless monads. He made humanity in male and female forms. This means that gender, and gender identity—if such a construct is at all intelligible—is an embodied reality. Male and female self-conception are not constructed from psychology alone. Male and female, according to the biblical portrait, are fixed, bodily realities; meaning they are not interchangeable or eradicable. They are objectively known; such that the identity of who we are as sexed humans is not a mystery. Lastly, male and female imply substantive differentiation. This differentiation is observed down to the chromosomal, anatomical, reproductive, physiological, and emotive levels. This physical difference starkly manifests itself in the anatomical design of male and female, which makes procreation possible and the fulfillment of the cultural mandate actionable.
- God created male and female for one another. God commands sexual activity to be experienced exclusively within the marital relationship of one man and one woman. The sexual distinction in Scripture bears witness to the sexual and procreative union that male and female bodies are capable of engaging in. In Scripture, sexual union ratifies the marriage covenant, signifying the existence of the marriage union intended to be permanent, monogamous, and exclusive (Gen. 2:24; 1 Cor. 6:16). Notice in Genesis 1:26–28 that the creation of man and woman in Genesis both is structural and dynamic. As male and female beings made in God’s image, their design is ordered toward a particular purpose—filling the earth, subduing it, exercising dominion. More specifically, that purpose is accomplished by male and female design—that the act of being fruitful and multiplying hinges on, and springs from, their respective sex distinction. In this account, general revelation parallels with special revelation. As each of us knows, sexual intercourse is capable of producing children, and this reality is exclusive to only one reality, male-female complementarity.
The Bible and Creation’s Manifold Witness of Gender and Sexuality
At least in contemporary debates on these issues, Christians are often tempted to treat our vision for sexuality and gender as ethical matters relevant and pertaining to Christians only. This is not a biblical way to approach such subjects. Such a view is a truncated account for explaining why Christians’s convictions on such matters are not only Christian, but universally applicable. The Bible casts a vision for sexuality and gender that is true on both special and general revelation grounds. As biblical scholar Richard Bauckham writes, “biblical commands are not arbitrary decrees but correspond to the way the world is and will be” (see God and the Crisis of Freedom: Biblical and Contemporary Perspectives, 70). When Christians discuss gender and sexuality, they must understand that the design for gender and sexuality in Scripture is the design that all humans are obligated to live within, even if they do not appear most the natural or easiest in light of sin. What Christians believe about sexuality and gender is not an “in-house” argument for debate among Christians only. The Bible understands gender and sexuality as creational realities that determine whether a society will organize itself in subjection to God’s authority or in rejection to God’s authority.
As ethicist Bernd Wannenwetsch writes, “The Christian doctrine of creation is precisely such a way of explaining why there are aspects of reality that are invested with normative moral significance” (see “Creation and Ethics: On the Legitimacy and Limitation of Appeals to ‘Nature’ in Christian Moral Reasoning,” in Within the Love of God: Essays on the Doctrine of God in Honour of Paul S. Fiddes, 209). This means that the Bible’s teaching on gender and sexuality are not sectarian. These teachings are not built on fideistic decrees or fiat. Instead, the Bible speaks to created reality in both a sinful and redeemed state—because the Lord Jesus reigns over creation and unites both creation and redemption in His gospel (see see Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics). Gender and sexuality do not require an exclusively Christian epistemology for their authority or intelligibility, but insofar as sin warps human perception, the Bible’s teaching do require explanation in line with the full drama of Christian doctrine. A vision for gender and sexuality that fails to satisfy the demands set forth in Genesis will be subject to endless redefinition, which is why revisionist accounts of gender and sexuality—such as same-sex marriage and gender fluidity—retain no coherent limiting principle.
Sexuality and Gender in Revolt
The five axioms above are the backdrop that explain Scripture’s prohibition on sexual practices and gender displays that transgress God-ordained creational distinctions and creational boundaries. Sin’s impact demonstrates how each of the axioms are assaulted.
- Concerning axiom one, a culture of unbelief either rejects God’s existence or God’s authority. Man’s agency, in this paradigm, is the measure of all that is. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the never-ending redefinition of sexual morality and ensuing gender confusion. Since there are no binding rules, sexuality and gender are a matter of personal will and preference. Sexuality and gender are self-chosen, issuing from the autonomous self. Since humanity is not bound by a code of objective and universal morality, what Christians consider sexually immoral or out of step with God’s intent for gender expression, is shorn of all taboo and prohibition— whether pornography (Ps. 101:3; Matt. 5:28; Col. 3:5) , bestiality (Lev. 18:23, 20:15–16; Exod. 22:19), polygamy (Gen. 2:24), lust (Matt. 5:28; Mark 7:20–23) , adultery (1 Cor. 6:9–11), orgies (Gal. 5:19–21), non-monogamy (Matt. 19:1–10), rape (Deut. 22:23–29; Ezek. 45:9; Mark 12:31), pedophilia (Matt. 18:5–6), homosexuality (Rom. 1:26–27; 1 Cor. 6:9–11), fornication (Gen. 2:24; Deut. 22:28–29; Eph. 5:3; 1 Thess. 4:1–8), incest (Lev 18:8–18; 1 Cor. 5:1–5), prostitution (Hos. 4:14) cross-dressing (Deut. 22:5; 1 Cor. 11:3–16), effeminacy (1 Cor 6:9–10), androgyny (Gen 1:27–28;), illicit seduction (Gen. 34; Prov. 7:6–23), transgenderism (Gen. 1:27–28), and sexual abuse (Deut. 22:25–27; Mark 12:31).
- In axiom two, humanity denies that it is a divine creation born of an intelligent and divine will, or inscribed with any inherent, fixed meaning. Any sexual arrangement is thus allowable insofar as consent is present; and any gender expression is permissible insofar as it comports with a person’s self-perception. Since humanity may or may not be the creation of a divine being, saying that a particular sexual arrangement or gender expression is prohibited is simply a product of social convention.
- With axiom three, humanity divests itself of any particular calling in light of being made in God’s image. Since we are not special creations endowed with a mission to exercise dominion, we subsist by vain expressions of human autonomy and self-seeking justification. Our liberation from God’s constraints becomes our abolition.
- In axiom four, humanity denies that male and female are objective and fixed realities. Instead, gender fluidity and suppression of sexed realities paint a portrait of gender and sexuality that is endlessly malleable and psychologically grounded. This allows such sins as transgenderism.
- In axiom five, the beauty of male-female complementarity is denied, meaning that the creational guardrails for sexuality are nullified. This licenses such sexual sins as homosexuality. It is not that homosexuality is worse than all other sins; but that it narrates through vivid and graphic portrayal an expulsive rejection of God’s authority concerning creational design and boundaries.
In all five axioms, what is at the root of humanity’s assault on God-defined expressions of sexuality and gender? God’s authority over sexual desire and sexual relationships, and God’s design for how gender is conceived and expressed, is cast off. As it is with every issue of ethics and morality, the idea that any objective standard exists and is binding begins and ends with whether God exists and whether He intends to hold individuals accountable for their actions.
Sexuality and Gender in Redemption
While this essay has strived to present an argument for the Bible’s teaching on gender and sexuality that is true on both general and revelation grounds, it would be incomplete if it failed to examine how sexuality and gender are understood within the horizon of the gospel.
- The New Testament reaffirms the vision for gender and sexuality taught in Genesis. The gospel offers the promise of the Holy Spirit’s guidance to live lives of holiness; the gospel does not create a radically new or disjunctive expectation for sexual morality and appropriate gender expression. In Matthew 19, Jesus affirms that the creational pattern for male and female set forth in Genesis 1–2 remains authoritative and binding for humanity. In Acts 15, the earliest church leaders confirmed that obedience to Old Testament law was not expected for Gentle Christians, but Christians were expected to uphold the same standard of Old Testament sexual morality inaugurated at creation. The pattern for sexual relationship and gender expression laid out for the early Christians thus validates the pattern begun in Genesis. Furthermore, New Testament prohibitions on sexual practices (e.g., homosexuality, incest) are echoes of the Old Testament’s sexual ethic. This ethic is grounded in God’s moral law and cannot be discarded or excused as pertaining only to Israel. The New Testament makes clear that sexual rebellion and rejection of appropriate gender boundaries renders culpable before God’s judgement (1 Cor. 6:9–11).
- The gospel brings fulfilling clarity to the vision for gender and sexuality taught in Genesis. The storyline and arc of the Bible’s teaching on gender and sexuality is one that relies upon narrative climax. In Ephesians 5:22–23, Paul explains that the union of husband and wife is meant to foreshadow the most visceral union in the cosmos—the Christ-Church union. Nowhere is the explanation of the Christ-Church union meant to overwhelm, supplant, or eradicate the underlying validity of male-female complementarity set forth in Genesis. The story of the gospel’s relationship to created nature—which includes our sexuality and gender—is that created nature would be led in the direction it was always intended (see Wannenwetsch, “Creation and Ethics,” 210). Though sexuality and gender remain creationally intelligible despite the fall, as Christians, we believe that both are ultimately designed to reflect the union of Christ and the church.
- The gospel empowers Christians to live in accord with the biblical vision for gender and sexuality taught in Genesis. The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ calls us to glorify God with our bodies because they were purchased by Him (1 Cor. 6:20). This purchase comprises the whole man (2 Cor. 5:17). We are called to honor the Lord Jesus and to submit to Him our sexual desires as well as our conduct (Matt. 5:28; Gal. 5:19–21; Eph. 4:22–24; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 4:1–8). We are to flee all forms of sexual morality (1 Cor. 6:18; Eph. 5:3–5; 1 Thess. 4:1–8). We embrace appropriate gender norms so as not to scandalize or give offense with impropriety of gender expression (Deut. 22:5; 1 Cor. 6:9; 11:3–16; 1 Tim. 2:9). Christians believe that we are not our own, and that we owe every facet of our existence—our gender expression and our sexuality—to Jesus Christ (Col. 1:15–20).
- Andreas Köstenberger, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation
- Andrew T. Walker, God and the Transgender Debate. See this author interview.
- Andrew T. Walker and Eric Teetsel, Marriage Is: How Marriage Transforms Society and Cultivates Human Flourishing
- Andrew T. Walker, “On Creation, Revelation, and the Meaning of Male and Female”
- Christopher C. Roberts, Creation & Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Moral Theology of Marriage
- Daniel Heimbach, True Sexual Morality: Recovering Biblical Standards for a Culture in Crisis
- Dennis Hollinger, The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life
- Denny Burk, What is the Meaning of Sex?
- John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism
- Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment
- Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense
- Stanley Grenz, Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective
- The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, The Nashville Statement,
- Todd Wilson, Mere Sexuality: Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality
This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.