Christians and gender

This page last updated October 26th, 2022
Two women with rainbow flag

Gender identity is probably the most contentious and divisive public issue facing first world christianity at the moment.

Our secular cultures are highly critical of traditional christian approaches, which are seen as “homophobic”, unloving and out of date. More progressive christian approaches are seen as faithless by more conservative christians.

Discussion of gender and sexuality can generate deep emotions, and conservative christian attitudes have caused hurt to LGBTQI christians in the past. I am aware that some LGBTQI people may find this topic distressing, and may feel that straight people like me shouldn’t be making judgments about gender identity issues.

But I think straight people need to talk about these things if change is going to come, but of course we must be informed by, and sensitive to, our LGBTQI friends. I hope and pray that my discussion here sheds light more than it generates heat. I hope my choice of words and my outline of facts is fair and inoffensive.

If you think you’ll find this page disturbing, please feel free to not read it.

On this page I outline the traditional christian view and the various criticisms of it that lead to alternative views. I find that the traditional view has some glaring inconsistencies while many of these alternative views have merit, though they are not all as well-based as their proponents claim.

But I think there is a way forward that could lead to a better outcome than what we see at present.

Defining the issues

My lifetime has seen an enormous change in our understanding of gender and the development of clearly defined LGBTQI identities. Behaviours that were once condemned are now widely accepted. These are now common understandings:

  • Gender isn’t simply binary – male and female – but is fluid and many-faceted.
  • Gender isn’t simply about sexuality – how we relate to other people – but is fundamentally about how each of us feels within ourselves.
  • Gender isn’t simply about sexual organs. Some people feel differently-gendered than the genitalia they were born with, and some people are born with confusing genitalia.
  • Sexuality isn’t simply a choice. Most people’s sexual preferences are inate.
  • A caring attitude towards others would lead us to accept people for who they are and how they identify, even if we find that strange or difficult to understand. The law shouldn’t differentiate on grounds of gender or sexuality.

Against all this is the traditional christian view that God created us either male or female, that only male-female sexual relations are acceptable to him, and that people shouldn’t attempt to change genders or express “deviant” lifestyles. This view served christians well for almost two millennia – it conformed with accepted understandings and formed the basis of a stable society and stable families.

The question is, should christians continue with this view, or does it require change in the light of the experiences and demands of modern LGBTQI advocates?

Let’s pause for an apology

Regardless of our view on LGBTQI relationships, let us begin by admitting with deep sadness that christians have often behaved very badly towards LGBTQI people.

At the very least, we haven’t always tried to understand their feelings and viewpoints or shown them friendship and welcome. Too often we have made jokes about them. In the past they have been excluded, discriminated against and even been victims of violence and murder.

This has been wrong, wrong, wrong. So I want to say I’m sorry for all this. We must do better. LGBTQI people are made in the image of God and loved by him, just as straight people like me are. Let us always treat them, and everyone else, that way.

Not negotiable

My discussion here is based on a few things that are (for me) not negotiable.

  1. LGBTQI people should not be discriminated against, stigmatised or persecuted. I live in a pluralist, democratic society where all should have equal rights and freedoms. They should be free to marry or enter into relationships as they choose. They are free to choose their own ethics within the law.
  2. As a christian, I have no right to impose my views on someone else, except where the law recognises significant harm to others. I don’t see any case where LGBTQI inclusion causes significant harm to others.
  3. Therefore, within the church, LGBTQI people should be welcome. The only question is whether God requires LGBTQI christians to be celibate and not to marry, as has been the traditional christian view.
  4. Sexual promiscuity, whether heterosexual or same-sex, is not in accordance with christian ethics. If there is a case for a change to this ethic, I am not making it.

Therefore, this page is limited to discussing whether christians should allow, approve or engage in same-sex relationships and marriages.

The traditional christian view

The long-standing christian view, that all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is sinful, is based mainly on five Biblical passages.

  • In the Old Testament two statements (Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13) say that a man having sex with another man is evil.
  • In the New Testament Romans 1:26-27 says God disapproves of both men and women having sex with someone of the same sex, while 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 & 1 Timothy 1:8–11 include in lists of sins several behaviours whose meaning isn’t entirely clear, but are generally interpreted as including homosexual sex.

Other passages have sometimes been used to support the traditional view, though they are less clear.

  • Genesis 19 contains the story of God’s destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sin, and some infer that the sin was homosexuality. However Ezekiel 16:49-50 says Sodom’s sin was not caring for the poor and needy. Other Jewish traditions and Jude 1:7-8 suggest the sin was sexual, but not necessarily homosexual. Genesis 19 is therefore unclear.
  • There are several disapproving OT references to male temple prostitutes (1 Kings 14:24, 15:12 & 2 KIngs 23:7), but since female temple prostitutes are also condemned, it isn’t necessarily same sex relations that are being specifically condemned.
  • Genesis 2 is referenced in several places in the NT (e.g. Matthew 19:4) to support the idea that marriage is between a man and a woman. This is taken by some christians to mean that no other form of marriage is allowed, but the passages don’t actually say this. Genesis 1:9-10 says that God separated the seas from the dry land (another apparent binary) but we know that there are in-between places like wetlands and intertidal zones – so perhaps it is the same with gender.

So I conclude that the conservative christian view on homosexuality is based on 5 passages. These passages are considered to be definitive by conservative christians, but their implications are disputed by others.

It is important to note that none of these passages talks about homosexuality as an orientation, but always as a behaviour. Hence most christians these days say that same sex attraction, or LGBTQI orientation, are not sinful, and celibate queer christians should be fully accepted into churches.

However not all christians accept this, and many churches who accept celibate LGBTQI christians are nevertheless unwilling to have them as ministers, so there is still some inequality.

What about trans?

The idea of transexual as an identity is relatively new, and thus christians have only recently needed to consider their view. It seems that most christians are opposed to the idea of people identifying as a gender different to their birth asignation, and/or having gender conversion therapy or surgery, but the reasons aren’t all that clear. Such christians may refer to Genesis and “male and female he created them”, but nothing there indicates it would be wrong to change from one to another.

At present I see no scriptural reason to oppose transition, though practical considerations suggest we should be cautious about undertaking this process.

Challenging the traditional view

In the past decade or so the traditional christian view on gender has been challenged in a number of ways which “affirm” LGBTQI identities.

More balance please!

As we have seen, there are 5 clear verses in the Bible that give teaching on homosexuality, and a few others that mention it. There are far more passages about the perils of wealth and greed, and our responsibility to care for the poor. Yet conservative christians seem to focus more on same sex relations than on these other topics.

So, it is sometimes said, it is surely time for christians to redress the balance, and stop giving the world the impression that gender morality is the core of christian ethics. This is surely true, but doesn’t do anything to lessen the force of the homosexuality “gotcha” verses.

Live and let live

Tolerance is often said to be one of the features of modern first world societies. And so, it is often argued, we should be more tolerant of LGBTQI people and stop being homophobic. This argument can take several forms.

  • We might feel that the church has imposed too much of its ethics on others, and it is time to let people make their own choices.
  • Or we may feel that the church’s stance on gender has alienated many people outside the church (and inside the church too), and it would help our mission if we stopped.
  • Or perhaps it seems too much to ask LGBTQI people to not express their sexuality physically, especially if we enjoy expressing our sexuality. Why should we deny them marriage and all that goes with it? It isn’t good for a man to be alone (Genesis 1), so isn’t that just as true of gay men (and everyone)?
  • Perhaps the strongest form of this argument comes from knowing LGBTQI christians as friends or close relatives. While it may be easy to reject LGBTQI relationships when they are anonymous to us, it is much harder when we know and love an LGBTQI person. It becomes that much more personal and difficult.

These are all helpful thoughts, and need to be considered. They should certainly affect how we relate to LGBTQI people, including christians. But Jesus said if we love him we’ll keep his commandments (John 14:15), and while it is true that Jesus didn’t say anything specifically about same-sex or other LGBTQI relationships, the principle remains for christians – we want to know and follow God’s mind on ethical questions, not our own.

So while I believe we should consider these responses, we need some objective way of knowing if they are God’s way for us. I believe there are ways we can be more confident of God’s way.

It just seems right

Some christians seem happy to let go of Biblical ethics when it seems right, when it seems that there are no good reasons to follow them. Examples may be the equality of women in the church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), and New Testament rules on dress (1 Peter 3:3-5), hair (1 Corinthians 11:2-16) and kissing (Romans 16:16). So, it is said, if we are willing to let go of these rules, why not statements on gender identity and same-sex behaviour?

But again, this seems to remove any sense of following God’s advice for us. I believe we are right to let go of those clothing and appearance rules, but they too need to be decided by something other than what we feel most comfortable with. So again, we need something more.

The Old Testament doesn’t apply to us?

This is a much more substantial response. There are good reasons why we shouldn’t take on Old Testament laws.

  1. Jesus made clear he was establishing a new covenant (Luke 22:20), as prophesied in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 31:31).
  2. The new covenant makes different demands on us. The sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7) outlines some of these. Elsewhere Jesus teaches that our righteousness must be something more than that of the Pharisees, who were actually back in the day the most scrupulous obervers of the Law (Matthew 5:20).
  3. The Old Testament Law is no longer binding or even applicable to new covenant followers of Jesus. He says this in Luke 16:16 & Mark 2:22-27. Paul says the same in Romans 7:6 and 2 Corinthians 3:6.
  4. And the clincher is Hebrews 8:13, written to Jewish christians: “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.”

Read more about The Old Testament Law and Christians on this website.

It therefore seems that the strong statements in Leviticus about homosexual behaviour can reasonably be left behind in the old covenant.

But non-affirming christians disagree. Tim Keller, one of the most admirable and respected evangelical christians today, argues that “the ceremonial laws of Moses around the sacrificial system and ritual purity were fulfilled in Christ and no longer binding, but that the moral law of the Old Testament is still in force”.

However Keller’s argument is tenuous, based on (1) “the Holy Spirit writes “God’s laws” on Christians’ hearts (so they are obviously still in force)” (Hebrews 10:16) and (2) “some of those Mosaic laws — the ceremonial — are no longer in binding on us” (also based on Hebrews).

But (1) Hebrews 10:16 doesn’t say it is the Torah and all the Torah that is written on our hearts, and (2) neither does Hebrews say that all the ceremonial laws are no longer binding. In fact I can find no distinction between moral, purity and ceremonial laws in scripture. The whole thing seems to be an evangelical construct to protect some OT laws while letting others go.

The killer for Keller’s view (and that of most evangelicals) is Leviticus 20:9-16, where the following behaviours are “abominations” to be punished by death: cursing parents, adultery, incest, homosexual sex and sex with animals. These are clearly moral law matters and yet I’m sure Keller wouldn’t want the laws followed today. Furthermore, eating of certain foods is also called “an abomination”, showing how the lines are more blurred than Keller allows.

So I conclude that the affirming christians are correct on this point. The Leviticus commands about same-sex relations should not be applied today, unless we are willing to apply the whole Law.

Re-interpreting the New Testament

The New Testament statements on same-sex relations are clearly more important for this discussion, and affirming arguments against using them are more complex. The argument that we shouldn’t apply these three texts today against LGBTQI people is based on two assertions:

  1. Loving, committed same-sex relations were not known in the ancient world. Same-sex attraction wasn’t understood as an inate sexual orientation, but as a vice that might tempt anyone. This was especially true in the Roman Empire, where wealthier men might have a wife, but also have sex with prostitutes, minors and their own slaves (who had little choice in the matter). Paul was writing against this behaviour, not committed same-sex relationships.
  2. There are hints in the New Testament of a more affirming way. In the NT, slavery was condoned, but there are hints that freedom and equality were part of God’s longer term plan (e.g. Philemon, Ephesians 6:5-9, Galatians 3:28). Likewise, the prevailing patriarchy was more or less accepted, but with hints and guidance of a more loving and equitable way for couples and the church (Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 5:25, 1 Peter 3:7). So, it is argued there are some hints of a more inclusive approach to sexuality:
    .
    • Acceptance of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8) is a big step forward from the exclusion for eunuchs in Deuteronomy 23:1, but reflecting the inclusiveness of Isaiah 56:4-5.
    • Jesus’ treatment of “sinful” women (John 8 & Luke 7) offer greater understanding and recognition that these women were also sinned against by a patriarchal society.

How should we assess these arguments?

  1. It is certainly true that sexual relations could be very perverted in the Roman Empire, and Paul could well have been reacting against that. But Tim Keller says that history shows that, contrary to the assertions of same-sex advocates, “Paul knew about mutual same-sex relationships, and the ancients knew of homosexual orientation”. Eminent Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, who actually is affirming about LGBTQI inclusion, nevertheless says: “It is impossible to explain away these texts.”
  2. The argument that there is an “arc of scripture” towards anti-slavery and emancipation of women may be accepted with some reservations, but the same argument for same sex relationships seems rather tenuous. It may be correct, but I’d want a little more basis before I accepted it.

So I am left feeling that the affirming interpretations of the three NT texts are problematic. I can’t help feeling that if Paul had have been asked about committed, loving same sex relationships, he would have opposed them. What Jesus would have said is anyone’s guess, but as a Jew, perhaps his response would be the same.

So I feel the attempt to reinterpret the Bible’s teaching is successful for the Old testament passages but problematic for the New Testament. If LGBTQI people are to be supported, this isn’t the best way.

The Bible speaks with two voices?

Walter Brueggemann welcomes LGBTQI christians into fellowship, but his Biblical justification is different. As I’ve noted, he thinks the anti-homosexuality texts cannot be explained away.

But, he notes that scripture often speaks with two voices, giving disparate and sometimes opposing views on some matters. (For some examples, see Variations in Old Testament teachings. This isn’t something that evangelical teachers are willing to admit, but it is well known by scholars and is obvious if the Bible is read with an open mind.)

So Brueggemann suggests that the Bible contains both “texts of rigor”, which include the texts we are discussing here, and “texts of welcome” (in which he includes Isaiah 56, Matthew 11:28-30, Galatians 3:28 and Acts 10). He argues that Jesus and the apostles tended towards the welcoming, and offers 5 principles of intepretation that support his conclusions that it is right to be LGBTQI inclusive.

Ian Paul argues against Brueggemann that same sex relationships are not something on which the Bible speaks with two voices. Reading both discussions, I’d call the dispute a draw. Maybe Brueggemann overstates the case, while Paul fails to recognise the fact that there are different emphases in scripture.

The way of love

Many supporters of LGBTQI inclusion point out that Jesus didn’t say anything about same sex relationships, he was caring and not legalistic when conversing with women who had lived outside the behavioural norms of the day (Luke 7, John 4 & John 8), so they infer he would be similarly loving towards LGBTQI people.

This conclusion is supported by two important principles Jesus gives us:

  1. Jesus said that the two most important commands are based on love – loving God and loving neighbour (Matthew 22:36-40). For him these two commands summed up the entire Old Testament Law.
  2. When about to heal a man on the Sabbath, which he knew would raise the ire of more legalistic Jews, Jesus asked an important question: “which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”

From these two principles a strong argument can be made. The denial of LGBTQI inclusion is doing harm and hurt, somewtimes causing deep trauma, whereas inclusion would be a blessing and welcoming. The principle of loving neighbour, it is said, makes inclusion the only course of action for a christian today.

Paul supports this approach based on principles rather than rules when he gives us the principle: “not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6) and says “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

Opponents would say that it isn’t loving to affirm someone’s sin, and God gives the commands on same sex relationships because he knows they are harmful. While that might be true, it assumes the very thing we are trying to assess – God’s attitude. It may be true that there are harms in same-sex relationships that we cannot see for ourselves, but it is surely clear that past (and present) anti-LGBTQI attitudes have caused deep harm and hurt to many.

One affirming christian has said to me: “When I face God’s judgment, I would rather he said I had loved too much than not enough!” An undecided christian has said: “Everyone deserves to be loved.”

So I find this approach very persuasive, without being absolutely sure it reflects how God is calling us today.

Conclusion

From all this, I conclude:

  • There is much merit in many of the affirming arguments. It is crucial that they are considered and the issues they raise are addressed.
  • No one argument on its own seems to me to totally justify going against the traditional view.
  • Cumulatively, their force is strong. But I feel we need an over-arching Biblical interpetation and ethical principle that ties it all together. To this I will now turn.

Untying the knot?

We need an approach that utilises the thoughts and Biblical evidnece we have been examining, but is focused on knowing God’s plan for us. I suggest an approach is based on these principles:

1. Loving Jesus = obeying

Jesus said if we love him we’ll obey him (John 14:15). Peter Enns says in an ancient near east covenant, “love” meant “obey”. If we are following Jesus, we are his disciples and we can’t just decide for ourselves what is right.

2. Jesus didn’t always follow the rules

  • Jesus was willing to challenge tradition if he thought the circumstances required it (Luke 6:1-5,)
  • He sometimes claimed to have higher authority than the sacred scriptures (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 43-44, John 8:2-11).
  • Like other rabbis of his day, he interpreted the scriptures quite freely:
    .
    • sometimes omitting sections that apparently didn’t support what he was saying (Luke 4 18-19 quotes from Isaiah but omits a reference to God’s vengeance – Paul does similar in three scriptural references in Romans);
    • sometimes totally changing the meaning of the scripture he referenced – e.g John 10:34 quoting (or misquoting) Psalm 82.

So how can we know if he would be flexible today about gender?

3. The Spirit of truth

We are not left to understand and interpret Jesus’ teachings and principles alone. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, who he called “the Spirit of truth”, would guide us and lead us into truth (John 14:17, 15:26, 16:13-15). And we see this happening in the early church, especially when Peter is led to begin a mission to the gentiles, against the undersatnding of the first century Jews (Acts 10 & 11). Peter was told “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15).

4. We can “know” the perfect will of God

Romans 12:2 says “be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is”. I assume this renewing of the mind is the work of the Holy Spirit, leading us into truth as Jesus promised. This is our aim.

5. Being led by the Spirit

The following approach offers a practical way forward that allows the Holy Spirit to guide us:

  1. We start by praying for the Holy Spirit to guide us, and we resolutely keep an open mind to what he might say. We try to stay connected to Jesus (John 15:1-8). If possible, people from all viewpoints and experiences should be praying together.
  2. We do our due diligence by considering all the aspects we have been discussing:
    • What does the NT say in context (1 Timothy 3:16)?
    • How does this teaching apply in our different circumstances today? Are there other Biblical principles to guide us here?
    • What would be the loving thing to do (Matthew 22:36-40)? How does any choice affect the people concerned?
    • How does any choice affect the life of the church and our witness and service to the world?
  3. We are guided by:
    • A sense of God’s peace (Colossians 3:15).
    • The gifts of the Spirit (wisdom, knowledge, prophecy) that may give us insight into God’s mind (Acts 13:1-3).
    • The unity of believers can be an indication of the Spirit’s leading (Acts 15:22 – “the whole church”).
  4. Ultimately, if the Spirit is really leading us to new understandings on important matters, I believe we will see evidence of his leading in the worldwide church. This to me is the vital test.

This is a holistic approach based on scripture, the Holy Spirit and human experience, with the clear aim not of winning an argument or upholding an already established position, but aimed at knowing God’s will for this time.

I know of at least one church which went through a structured process like this and reached a decision peacefully.

So what is the answer for gender issues?

In keeping with the principles I’ve outlined, it really isn’t for me to say what God is saying to us today. But I can offer these observations.

  1. Few people seem to have followed such a holistic approach. Most of what I have read on the subject seems to be from people supporting the view you’d expect them to hold. A few have changed their view following due consideration and prayer.
  2. When I consider all the arguments on both sides, I feel neither viewpoint is clearly correct, but the affirming view is slightly slightly more favourable.
  3. When I look at evidence of the Spirit leading christians one way or another, I think the matter is inconclusive – there isn’t a strong consensus. But I feel there may be a majority of christians I respect moving towards being affirming. I don’t think we are there yet, but perhaps the consensus is moving that way.

A practical way forward

LGBTQI christians have been in limbo for long enough, so the church needs to come to an answer. Yet we don’t want to rush to judgment – that is the way to fear and disunity. Each church needs to only move (if at all) as fast as most of their people can change.

My feeling is that straight christians need to stop passing judgments that deeply affect other people. I suggest we should encourage LGBTQI christians, support them and accept them, and leave it between them and God as to whether they marry or remain celibate. Some will choose to marry, some will choose to remain celibate.

This, after all, is what we do with many other ethical issues such as wealth. The Bible says more about the perils of wealth and the importance of equality and caring for the poor than it does about gender identity – just read James 5:1-6, Luke 12:13-21, Matthews 25:31-46. Yet we don’t exclude rich and materialistic christians from our gatherings, or from ministry – in many cases we especially welcome them.

So let’s not allow gender identity to be the most important ethical issue for us, and give the Holy Spirit time and opportunity to lead us into greater unity on this matter.

The last word

I hope and pray I haven’t hurt anyone with my language, my assessments or my conclusions.

I hope conservative christians won’t feel angry or overly criticial, but will follow the process I suggest and pray about this.

And I hope that LGBTQI christians will feel recognised, supported and loved, will also be praying about God’s will for them, and will be patient to see how God leads the church.

God bless you all!

References

Traditional view

“Progressive” views

Secular perspectives

Photo by Monstera.

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