Gender Identity - part 3

Posted by Karen Soole Karen Soole
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Sometimes I feel I am not very good at ‘being a woman’ . As a child I did not want to be a girl, I hated everything that went with it, being a girl was restrictive, I was a typical ‘tomboy’ and found myself stuck in a girls playground at school with pockets full of marbles and conkers whilst the girls around me skipped and played horses. Becoming a teenager was worse. I protested puberty, I did not want to grow breasts and menstruation became a once a month disabling nightmare. I asked my mother if I could have a hysterectomy because I could not foresee  a day when I might desire to have children. It is fair to say I was extremely uncomfortable with my identity, I did not feel like a ‘proper’ woman based on things like my dislike of cooking, housework, crafts and babies. This reflected the world I grew up in, I was the youngest of four with three older brothers and like all teenagers struggled with the complexities of moving into adulthood. I am now very happy as a wife and mother, living a life I previously would have despised (although I’m still no good at cooking). But what does it mean for me to be a woman? Gender is a complex social process. In our culture gender identity is understood as a deeply personal process and it is considered to be very wrong to impose expectations of gender on anybody. Writers and thinkers from Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, Germaine Greer and Stephen Pinker  disagree with one another and contribute to our confusion. We are not sure what it means for any of us to describe ourselves as men and women. Is gender an inherited part of our nature or are we a blank slate with gender imposed on us? In our churches we perpetuate cultural norms and stereotypes as unquestioned truths which we used to get away with it because there was little difference between our culture and Church teaching but this is no longer true. Today people recoil at traditional church teaching on manhood and womanhood.

Does the bible speak to the issue of gender identity? Does it tell me what it is to be a woman? Considering the fundamental nature of these questions it is surprising that the bible does not have any verse that defines femininity or masculinity. The more I have sought to find an answer to my questions the more I have seen that the bible’s primary concern is to establish our identity not as gendered beings but primarily as created beings. This does not mean that there is no difference between male and female but the bible’s narrative points not to that difference but instead to the similarity between men and women:

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them. Genesis ch.1:27

Both male and female are created in Gods image equally, the difference is undefined at this point because the emphasis is on sameness. We are equal in dignity and value, both reflect the image of God, both are commanded to be fruitful and rule over the creation. God bestows huge value and worth on all people. We are all creatures who should fear and worship the Lord. Genesis 2 continues this story. The clearest expression of what a woman is comes in the first recorded poem:

 The man said,
‘This is now bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called “woman”,
    for she was taken out of man.’ Genesis ch.2:23

This is a declaration of unity between man and woman, it speaks of sameness and of kinship far more than difference. It leads to the perfect union between man and woman. Of course we know that this all goes horribly wrong which leads to the other major facet of our identity: we are broken creatures in a broken relationship with our creator, with one another and with the creation.

It is within the Genesis narrative about unity that the clearest statements about the difference between male and female emerges; women have the capacity to bear children (Genesis 3:16, 20). Reduced to the basics what it means to be a woman in the bible is to ‘bear children’ or to have the capacity to bear children.This is not ground breaking stuff, it is a fundamental truth known and accepted through all of history (until now) that the key difference between the sexes is: women can have children and even those who do not have children experience menstruation.The bible promotes this childbearing role but does not teach that every women should or will have children. The gender identity of women in scripture is linked to the physical body and its capacity for childbirth (which explains the chapters in Leviticus concerning menstruation and purification after childbirth).  

Does the bible say more than this? Yes, and no; I cannot find definitions of what it means to male or female in terms of our innate nature or any prescribed attributes that belong only to men or women e.g. women are encouraged to display gentleness but this quality is not confined to women instead it is one that should characterise all Christians and it is a prerequisite for leadership cf. Philippians 4:5, 1 Timothy 6:11, 1 Timothy 3:3 .

The bible’s primary message about our identity is this:

1. We are created male or female in Gods image equal but different. We are all creatures who should fear and worship the Lord.

2. We are rebellious sinners, equal in fallenness and our need for rescue.

The heart of the bible’s message is that God wants to rescue and restore both men and women to relationship with him. In Christ God restores us to an incredible relationship and status; in Christ we are adopted as God’s children. Therefore as Christians being in Christ is the most important identity that we have.

When we grapple with gender identity without reference to our created-ness, and our broken-ness we will come to strange and confused conclusions and miss our need for rescue through Christ. When we know what Jesus has done for us we experience a restoration in our relationship with God that makes being in Christ the most important identity that we have. It is this that matters more than anything else!

But even knowing these foundational things we live out life as a gendered beings so how should we conduct ourselves in terms of gender expression? Coming soon …