Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation
Sexual orientation is an enduring and unchosen capacity or predisposition for sexual desires toward one or both sexes. The modern redefinition of gender is the subjective self-perception of being male or female.
When discussing same-sex sexual behavior and desires, some assert that the Bible has nothing to say about sexual orientation. But Paul’s use of sarx (“flesh” or “sinful nature”) can be a helpful category to better understand and minister to individuals who have an enduring and unchosen predisposition. What is at the root of the confusion today over what is male or female, is the elevation of subjective experience over objective truth. In other words, self-perception eclipses biology. But those struggling with gender dysphoria should not be unduly stigmatized. They wrestle with the consequence of the Fall as with all humanity and the solution begins and ends with faith in Christ.
Understanding Sexual Orientation
The concept of sexual orientation originates from the secular disciplines of psychiatry and psychology. Unfortunately, Christians often pigeonhole themselves into these social science constructs rather than grounding their critical understanding of sexual orientation around biblical and theological teaching.
Gay advocates and even some Christians assert that the Bible has nothing to say about “sexual orientation” and therefore does not condemn or is ambiguous about condemning same-sex relationships.1 After all, they say, this term does not appear anywhere in the pages of Scripture. But this naïve understanding of how systematic theology is formulated—that the absence of a word is equivalent to silence—would mean that the Bible has nothing to say about many core doctrines, not the least of which being the Trinity. Rather, Scripture paints a theological picture which frames all of life.
Even if the phrase “sexual orientation” does not appear in Scripture, does the Bible address something similar to it? We should begin with a definition. The American Psychological Association describes it this way, “Sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes.”2 The APA also states that these attractions are generally not chosen.3
In 2006, international human rights activists produced the Yogyakarta Principles, defining sexual orientation as a “capacity for profound emotional, affectional and sexual attraction.”4 In his book Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation, gay neuroscientist, Simon LeVay, defines sexual orientation as “the trait that predisposes us to experience sexual attraction.”5 By consolidating these definitions, we see that sexual orientation is understood as an enduring and unchosen capacity or predisposition for sexual desires toward one or both sexes.
Defining Enduring and Unchosen Sinful Desires: The Flesh
Before we consider whether the Bible addresses any enduring or unchosen predisposition, we must first break out of the secular paradigm of opposite- and same-sex desires and instead use the biblical categories of good sexual desires and sinful sexual desires. Good sexual and romantic desires are those whose end is within the context of biblical marriage. Sinful sexual and romantic desires are those whose end is outside the context of biblical marriage.
Because all same-sex sexual and romantic desires are sinful, is there any biblical concept describing an enduring and unchosen capacity or predisposition for sinful desires? Does Scripture provide a lucid, theological framework to disentangle the complex and confusing conversation around sexual orientation? Yes, it is called flesh (sarx) or sinful nature—in other words, a sin orientation—and the doctrine of sin (hamartiology).
Some English translations of the New Testament render the Greek word sarx as “sinful nature,” while others render it literally as “flesh.” Sarx is an important and particular concept in Paul’s theology. Pauline expert Douglas Moo explains that especially in Paul’s writings (such as in Romans and Galatians) the meaning of sarx conveys “the limitations of the human condition that have been imposed by sin.”6
In Galatians 5:16–17, Paul explains how the flesh fights against the Spirit and the Spirit fights against the flesh. This dichotomous tension does not suggest that we have split natures inside us warring against each other; rather, sarx refers to the whole person marked by the rebellion—the “corruptibility and mortality”—of this present evil age.7
This reflects the redemptive-historical reality between the old self, characterized by the flesh, and the new self, characterized by the Holy Spirit. This tension between flesh and Spirit is evidence of the overlap between the present evil age and the coming age. The flesh represents this wicked era and our position under the dominion of sin and death. The Spirit represents the coming age and our freedom from the power of sin and the law.8 In this overlap, aspects of both ages are present together.
The reality is that “the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4) has not passed away and the implications of sin and the “old man” linger. As redeemed believers, though we are being renewed and transformed day by day, we live nonetheless with the vestiges of our old self and with our distorted post-Fall image. Therefore, we must be vigilant in the midst of temptations. As Denny Burk and Heath Lambert put it so well, unlike Jesus, who had no sinful nature, we have a “landing pad” for those temptations that can quickly turn into sinful desire.9
Doing Battle with the Flesh
A spiritual battle is raging “between God’s Spirit and the impulse to sin.”10 This impulse no longer enslaves the believer, but it can still have an influence. We therefore face a daily fight. In Romans 8:13, Paul pleads with us: “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
Christ’s salvific work certainly has inaugurated a new era, but this new era is also not fully consummated—the already but not yet. We have been set free, but we must continue to persevere in the battle until that glorious and final day arrives. What does this mean for those who have a predisposition for—but daily mortify—same-sex sexual and romantic temptations?
We should recognize that predisposition is not equivalent to predetermination. In Romans 6:6–7, Paul writes that the individual by virtue of union with Christ is emancipated from the bondage of sin and fallen human nature: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.”
This freedom from sin’s reign does not imply freedom from all sinning or a complete absence of temptations, but it is a decisive break with sin and a qualitative change in which our mind is less dark and our will is less rebellious. This new life is the sovereign work of God.
The Holy Spirit is the divine cause of our rebirth (John 3:5–6), and this freedom from sin is an act of God’s grace: “Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom 6:14). As John Piper explains, “Grace is not simply leniency when we have sinned. Grace is the enabling gift of God not to sin. Grace is power, not just pardon.”11
The other thing to remember is to avoid extremes. At one extreme, we must not to cheapen God’s grace and assume that we can keep on sinning because “love covers a multitude of sins” (1Pet 4:8). This would be a distortion, and Paul speaks directly to this: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:1– 2).
But at the other extreme, some who have same-sex sexual temptations are overburdened with shame and guilt because they feel they are not worthy of God’s grace. They have repented and are not acting out, but believe this struggle is the unpardonable sin. By recognizing that the issue is our flesh—our fallen human nature—we can daily realize that we are not that much different from anybody else.
At the root, it all comes down to original sin. The moral consequence of the fall has corrupted every person. The exact form of temptation may be different, but the root cause is still the same. The issue is not whether we are tempted, but how we respond.
Comfort comes from knowing we are not alone. We need to be honest and transparent with trusted others about our struggles with unchosen and often ongoing temptations. Further segregating ourselves into “straight Christians” and “gay Christians” gives the false impression that we are fundamentally different at the core of our being.
Instead, we must find solidarity in the fact that we all suffer from original sin—the moral consequence of the fall—and that we are all in need of grace. Together we remind one another of our desperate need for the only solution for our sin nature: Christ and his body, the church.
Male and Female: Gender Identity
Is “gender” a social construct? Are there more than two “genders”? Although the modern West has lost its boundaries and celebrates a plethora of so-called gender options, how should Christians understand and critique today’s redefinition of gender in light of Scripture?
The term sex has a couple of definitions. It often refers to the act of sexual intercourse, but it also can mean the categories of male and female. For this discussion, we are focusing on the second definition. Sex as male or female is an objective, binary category describing the body’s reproductive classification.
Many today, however, claim that sex is not objective but arbitrary—for example, asserting sex is “assigned” at birth. But this is not arbitrary: the sex of a newborn is observed physically by the baby’s visible sex organs and can be confirmed genetically through a DNA test. Sex has very explicit phenotypic traits. To say otherwise is completely unscientific and would mean we must rewrite every single biology textbook ever written.
But what about people who are “intersex”? Does this exceptionally rare condition (by all counts, one in thousands, not hundreds) prove sex is non-binary and on a spectrum? No. Intersexuality is a biological phenomenon where an individual may have genital ambiguity or genetic variance. In human biology, however, anomalies do not nullify categories nor abolish binaries.
The modern redefinition of “gender” refers to a psychological reality independent from biological sex. It is the subjective self-perception of being male or female. Given that sex is objective and gender is subjective, you would think we would value conforming one’s subjective ideas to objective truth. Instead, the opposite is the case: our culture now values altering the objective, physical reality of our bodies to accommodate the subjective impression of ourselves.
This new form of gnostic dualism separates mind from body and elevates self-understanding as the determiner of personhood—hence the neologism gender identity. The truth of the matter is this: sense of self at best describes how we feel, not who we are.
The Bible and Gender Identity
In the first chapter of the Bible, God creates the heavens and the earth and fills the earth with living creatures. The crown of creation is adam, or man (humankind). And among all the various human characteristics, God highlights one in particular: male and female.
Genesis 1:27 conveys an undeniable connection between “the image of God” and the ontological categories of male and female. This verse consists of three lines of poetry, with the second and third lines structured in parallel, communicating a correlation between God’s image and “male and female.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
Being created in the image of God and being male or female are essential to being human. Sex (male and female) is not simply biological or genetic, just as being human is not simply biological or genetic. Sex is first and foremost a spiritual and ontological reality created by God. Being male or female cannot be changed by human hands; sex is a category of God’s handiwork, his original and intended design.
As hard as anyone may try to alter this fact in his or her own body, the most that can be done is artificially remove or augment body parts or use pharmaceuticals to suppress unnaturally the biological and hormonal reality of one’s essence as male or female. In other words, psychology usurps biology; what I feel becomes who I am. When denying this physical and genetic reality we allow experience to supersede essence and, more importantly, the image of God. Transgenderism is not exclusively a battle for what is male and female, but rather a battle for what’s true and real.
So how did we get here? Transgenderism is the fruit of postmodernity. Postmodernism, coming out of romanticism and existentialism, tells us that “you are what you feel.” Thus, experience reigns supreme, and everything else must bow before it. Sola experientia (“experience alone”) has won out over sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”).
But God is saying, You are who I created you to be. The truth is not something we feel; it is not based on our self-perception. In fact, Scripture tells us that the fallen heart “is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). We cannot trust our own thoughts and feelings, so we need to submit them to God because we can “trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock” (Isa 26:4).
Most people’s self-perception is congruent with their biological sex. For a small percentage of others, it is not. The mental distress from this dissonance is called gender dysphoria. Some choose to identify as transgender male-to-female or female-to-male, in essence elevating psychology over biology.
Although identifying is a choice and going through “hormone therapy” or surgery is a choice, the struggle is not. For some, the struggle is very real. Yet as peculiar and unusual as it may be, we must recognize that having unchosen and even persistent thoughts incongruent to one’s actual sex is a psychological consequence of the fall. Every Christian shares the experience of daily mortifying the consequences of the fall.
Put in the context of human brokenness, one’s incongruence between gender and sex may not be as bizarre as many think. Just as giving-in to temptation is sin while being tempted is not, giving-in to a fallen self-perception of gender is sinful, but the fight is not.
Should it surprise us that the Deceiver whispers to some regarding their sex, “Did God actually say?” Let us commit to pray for those with gender dysphoria to follow Christ and his truth rather than their darkened minds and the worldly agendas of social justice and identity politics.
In our own churches, there are those afraid to confess and seek prayer, lest they be shunned and ridiculed. Let us come around sisters and brothers who do not conform to this world but are renewing their minds, resisting fallen thoughts of gender dysphoria, and taking every thought captive.
Let us all join as we fight against placing our psychology over our biology. Rather, let us submit it all to God and recognize that he makes no mistakes and created us in his own image.
- Allberry, Sam. Is God Anti-Gay? And Other Questions about Homosexuality, the Bible and Same-sex Attraction. London: Good Book, 2013.
- Branch, J. Alan. Affirming God’s Image: Addressing the Transgender Question with Science and Scripture. Bellingham: Lexham, 2019.
- Butterfield, Rosaria Champagne. Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ. Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant Publications, 2015.
- The Gospel Comes with a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in Our Post-Christian World. Wheaton: Crossway, 2018.
- The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith. 2nd ed. Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant Publications, 2014.
- Cook, Becket. A Change of Affection: A Gay Man’s Incredible Story of Redemption. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019.
- Danylak, Barry. A Biblical Theology of Singleness. Cambridge: Grove Books Limited, 2007.
- Redeeming Singleness: How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.
- DeYoung, Kevin. What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? Wheaton: Crossway, 2015.
- Mathis, David. Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines. Wheaton: Crossway, 2016.
- Owen, John. Overcoming Sin and Temptation. Edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor. Wheaton: Crossway, 2015.
- Pearcey, Nancy R. Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018.
- Perry, Jackie Hill. Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2018.
- Roberts, Vaughan. Talking Points: Transgender. London: Good Book, 2016.
- Walker, Andrew T. God and the Transgender Debate: What Does the Bible Actually Say about Gender Identity?London: Good Book, 2017.
- Yuan, Christopher. Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire, and Relationships Shaped by God’s Grand Story. Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2018.
- Yuan, Christopher and Angela Yuan. Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son’s Journey to God, A Broken Mother’s Search for Hope. Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2011.
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.