Resolute in a Gender-Confused Culture
From no-fault divorce to gay marriage, our culture has undertaken an enormous social experiment on issues of gender and sexuality. All manner of sexual dysfunction has become quite mainstream. As resolute Christians, our response cannot simply be to curse the darkness and to stand aloof from the culture. God calls us to be in the world, not of the world, for the sake of the world (John 17:15-18). God calls us to holiness so that we can engage our culture with the gospel. To do that, we have to be like the men of Issachar — men who understood the times and who knew what the people of God were to do (1 Chr 12:32). That is why we need to understand the worldview commitments of our own culture so that we can bring the gospel to bear upon it. We can summarize that worldview in three statements.
First, our culture believes that gender is something that you learn, not something that you are. In other words, the idea of male and female comprises a set of stereotypes that we absorb from our culture. Male and female does not designate a universal, innate distinction between men and women. Gender is merely a social construct. Except for obvious biological differences, all other social distinctions between male and female are purely conventional. If there are any psychological distinctions between males and females, they are learned, and they can and need to be unlearned so that there can be a total equality between the sexes. This worldview is so entrenched in today’s culture that one can hardly suggest that there might be innate differences between male and female without being dismissed as a sexist and a bigot.
Second, our culture holds that sex is for pleasure, not for God. We might call this the Sheryl Crow philosophy on sexuality: if it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.
This worldview affirms any and all attempts to get sexual pleasure so long as such attempts do not harm others. If it feels good and you’re not hurting anyone, then how could it possibly be wrong? The encroachment of this perspective explains to some extent why one in four evangelical “Christian” teenagers do not believe in abstaining from sex before marriage and why more than a third of white evangelical Protestants make their “sexual début” shortly after turning 16. This libertine worldview has had a devastating effect on the sexual mores of self-identified “Christians.”
Third, our culture maintains that marriage is cultural, not universal. In other words, marriage is something that comes to us from human culture, not from God. It has a human origin, not a divine one. With God out of the picture, humans are free to make marriage into whatever they want. This final piece accounts for much of the confusion and the conflict surrounding the so-called “culture war” about the issue of marriage in our society. Not only is this worldview evident in sky-rocketing divorce rates and in legal outrages such as “no fault” divorce; it also undergirds the current push in our society for states to recognize same-sex “marriage.”
If gender is something you learn and not something you are and if sex is for pleasure and not for God, then same-sex relationships should not be treated any differently than heterosexual relationships. Once a society divorces maleness and femaleness and from the Creator’s design, there is no moral basis for privileging heterosexual unions over any other kind of union (homosexual or otherwise).
Gender in Biblical Focus
The biblical worldview stands in stark contrast to our culture’s way of thinking about gender and sexuality.
First, the Bible teaches that gender is something you are before you learn anything. In other words, the distinctions between male and female find their origin in God’s good creation, not in what we learn from culture. That is not to say that the people do not absorb ideas about gender from the culture, some of which are quite unhelpful.
Jesus and Paul look back, without exception, to the pre-fall monogamous union of Adam and Eve as the norm of human sexuality and marriage.
But that fact should neither be used to suppress the truth that in the beginning God differentiated humankind as male and female as a part of his original creation-work, nor should it obscure the fact that God unambiguously called this differentiation “good” (Gen 1:27, 31). The union of the first man and the first woman was the most healthy, wholesome, and satisfying union that has ever existed, and it involved a man leading his wife and a wife following the leadership of her husband (Gen 2). And, though no other marriage will reach such perfection on this side of glory, Christians should strive with integrity toward this ideal.
Second, the Bible teaches that sex is for God before there is any lasting pleasure. God is not a cosmic killjoy when it comes to sex. God intends for his creatures to enjoy this gift for his sake. But when people treat pleasure as the goal of sex, not only do they end up in immorality, but they also end up with less pleasure. The only way to maximize the pleasure that God intends for our sexuality is to live in light of the truth that our bodies are not for immorality but for the lord (1 Cor 6:13). Thus what we do with our bodies vis a vis sex matters to God. That is why Paul commands us, “Therefore, glorify God with your body” (1 Cor 6:20). The covenant of marriage is the most pleasurable and the most God-glorifying context in which to enjoy our sexuality. The Christian sexual ethic does not call people away from joy, but toward it.
Third, the Bible teaches that marriage is universal, not cultural. The Bible teaches that marriage was designed and created by God, not by human culture. In fact, it is interesting to see how the New Testament proves this fact in light of the old Testament. When Jesus and Paul set out new covenant marital norms, they do not appeal to polygamist kings like David or Solomon or to polygamist patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac or Jacob. For all the importance these old Testament figures have in the history of redemption, Jesus and Paul do not look to any of them as the paradigm for understanding marriage. Instead, Jesus and Paul look back, without exception, to the pre-fall monogamous union of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 as the norm of human sexuality and marriage. “For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother and shall cling to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24; cf. Matt 19:5; Mark 10:7-8; 1 Cor 6:16; Eph 5:31). The apostle Paul says that the great “mystery” of the Genesis 2 norm of marriage is that God intended it all along to be a shadow of a greater reality: Christ’s marriage to his church (Eph 5:31-32). Thus, marriage is not defined by the culture, but by the gospel itself.
The Church’s Calling
Our society is confused about gender and sexuality because it has forgotten what it means to be created in the image of God as male and female. Instead, we have plunged headlong into the genderless void, not thinking about the consequences for our children and the public good. Christians must stand resolute in this context. What our friends and neighbors need more than anything is for Christians and their churches to set forth a faithful counter-witness on these issues. The messages coming from the culture are clear. Ours should be even more so.
This article was originally posted in the summer 2012 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine. You can read the full PDF here.