Gender ender?Posted: July 11, 2011
Yesterday, NPR ran this article on what seems to be the passing importance of gender, citing both the recent NIV Bible translation, and Canadian infant “Storm” as part of the cultural shifts towards gender neutrality.
As many know, the latest iteration of te NIV bible has gone gender-neutral. In a powerful religious subculture so married to binary gender identification categories and heteronormativity, what does such a move mean for the future of gender within dominant Christianity? Mainline churches have already moved towards greater inclusion and acceptance, but distinctive gender roles and heteronormativity still rule the day within Evangelicalism.
So that we are clear here, sex and gender are two different categories. One’s sex is biological and determined by one’s reproductive organs, whereas gender is not as fixed as one’s biology, but rather an identification and class that one assimilates to (either passively or actively). For the most part, our culture and our systems are designed around binary classifications that include male/female and masculine/feminine. However, biology and identity are not as easy as they seem when they appear on an official form or drop down menu with these two choices.
When we bind ourselves to these binary categories we exclude the biological realities of intersex persons (those with biological characteristics of both sexes). While intersex persons do not make up a large percentage of births, their very existence challenges our cultural concepts of sex and gender as fixed binary categories. What is the church’s response to challenges against male/female classification? If the answer is “deviance,” then I think we need to go back to the drawing board. Because the Bible operates within a binary framework (I’m assuming the closest we see to anything challenging the norm is the Ethiopian eunuch), is there room for other realities in biblical communities? What are the repercussions of answering yes or no? What do our beliefs about gender and sex say about the character of God? What do they say about sexuality and sexual ethics? What role does gender have in the gospel?
Patrick Cheng writes in his recent book, Radical Love:
“For the earliest Christians, coming together as a community was an act of subversion. It was the creation of a radically new ‘family’ or ‘body’ that transcended biological relationships and the established social order. It was a rehearsal for the end times, when the human body, with its physical attributes, would be raised as a spiritual body, or pneumatikos soma. In other words, church was an external community of radical love. That is, the church was a new community that dissolved traditional boundaries that kept people apart such as biological relationships, social class, and physical attributes . . .
As Galatians reminds us, there is neither male nor female in Christ Jesus. This gathering up of God’s people, regardless of sexuality, gender identity, and other differences, is the work of the Holy Spirit and is a way of returning us to the radical love that was sent by the first person of the Trinity, and the radical love that was recovered by the second person of the Trinity.” 
I’m not so sure that the NIV going gender-neutral is as much a signpost of the end of gender rather than the realization of the Bible’s androcentric tradition. However, there is still much room for inclusion, embrace, and wrestling with difficult parts of scripture and tradition in hopes of moving the gospel forward in love and grace, and growing into communities that reflect the justice, mercy, and peace of God.
1. Cheng, Patrick S. Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology (Seabury Books, 2011), 106.