Gender, Confusion, and Conversation, Part 2

confusionYOU are an image-bearer. Have you ever paused to consider this weighty theological truth?  Men and women have been given the most profound honor in all of creation: we are created to bear the image of God. We bear God’s image—who He is and how He interacts with the world—in our spirits, souls, and in our bodies as male and female. The enemy is working hard to remove God’s image from the earth by bringing about much confusion regarding gender and sexuality. As image-bearers, we have the privilege of speaking truth into this confusion. We can also take life-giving steps to bless and affirm the God-given gender identity of the children and teenagers in our spheres of influence.

Message #1: Gender is a Social Construct

In order to have life-giving conversations, it is helpful to understand a little of the world’s thinking. We interact with it every day. Overall, the world is communicating three messages. First, gender is a social construct. In other words, gender is a concept created and constructed by people. This philosophy is nothing new. It has been taught in women’s studies courses for decades, but it is now emphasized among mainstream educators and taught as early as kindergarten.

Message #2: Gender is Based on Feelings

Second, the world says that gender is based on feelings, interests, and passions and is defined by each individual. Thus, we have people who identify as “transgender.” Their thoughts, feelings, and interests are classified according to what has historically been assigned to the “other” gender, not the one associated with their physical bodies.  It’s also a perfect confluence of self-determination and post-modern thinking. There is no objective truth—my truth is my truth, and your truth is your truth. Each of us creates that truth on our own, including the truth about our own gender. As a result, there are now 57 genders to choose from on Facebook in the United States.

Disconnected

Much of our culture is working with the misguided idea that gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual attraction are all independent parts of a person’s makeup. These different areas of a person’s life are all considered to be completely separate from one another. They are based on feelings and completely changeable from day to day. This means that every day, people are choosing whether they feel feminine or masculine. They are deciding how much cultural femininity or masculinity they want to express through clothes, hairstyle, etc. They are selecting how much of their physical female-ness or male-ness they want to exhibit, and whether they sense attraction to men or women.

Message #3: Gender Doesn’t Matter

Third, the world says gender ultimately doesn’t matter. In the end, men and women are interchangeable. There is no difference between the two. The ultimate goal of this line of thinking is androgyny, a world where humans are indistinguishable from one another. Distinction is removed, and the two meld into one. Thus, we have people identifying as “gender fluid” or “queer,” believing that they don’t belong to either gender.

The Truth of God’s Design

The truth, in contrast, is that gender is created by God, gender is defined by God, and distinction between men and women-and unity within marriage-are an intentional act of God.  We believe that God reveals and imparts our complete identity to us at the moment of creation through our embodiment as man or woman. The creation and definition of our identity rests in God’s design, not ours. When a man and woman are united in marriage, the ultimate goal of unity with distinction is shown to the world: two become one, while still remaining two.

Navigating the Chaos

Bottom line, the world’s thinking is rooted in contradiction and chaos. The world is trying to make sense of feelings and experiences while rejecting the truth of God’s design and revelation. Our children and teenagers are encountering this contradiction and chaos daily. Now as a parent of teenagers myself, the topic of gender comes up nearly every day. I am often corrected on the particular pronouns of choice by my daughter’s friends. “Mom, that person is a ‘they’.” Another friend chooses the pronoun “he” when “his” body is definitely a she. While God imparts our gender identity at creation, we also must embrace and grow into that given identity. As parents and mature adults, we can help children and teenagers in our sphere of influence do the same.

Connect Children with Their Bodies

The following tools can help build a solid foundation of blessing and affirming their God-given gender identity. First, within the context of family, we can connect children with their bodies. We can connect children with their male-ness or female-ness. Intentionally call them “son” or “daughter” and “boy” or “girl.” Teach children about their bodies and help them see how their bodies are called good by God. Teach the correct names for body parts and how to protect their bodies from misuse and abuse. This first may require overcoming our own shame about our bodies.

Encourage children to understand how their particular body works, what it does well, what it needs more help doing. Remind boys that their body is distinctive and different from a girl’s and how to take care of all the parts of their body. Remind girls that their body is distinctive and different from a boy’s and how to care for their unique body. Most of all, make your family the place children learn about their bodies. Then when they have questions, they know they can come to moms and dads to ask those questions.

Connect Children with Biblical Gender

Second, we connect children with biblical gender, with special focus on the gender that gives them identity. That is, we help all children do masculine things and express feminine traits. We also make sure boys find connection and identity in the true masculine while helping girls find connection and identity in the true feminine. Families are the first place this type of connection is formed. However, the church family and friends also participate in this connection-building.

Affirming Boys

Help boys find connection to the true masculine. Encourage and affirm them in their strength of character, their willingness to stand up for the truth of God’s Word, and their reaching out to others in relationship. Remind them they are “men of God” and name them as “sons of God.”  Make sure to build up this connection without diminishing their capacity to express the true feminine.

For example, when a young man plays a beautiful piano piece for the offering at church, thank him afterward for the strength of his playing. When a sensitive young man in youth group expresses grief over injustice at his school, commend him for calling out the truth of the situation and his desire to protect those who are vulnerable.

Affirming Girls

Help girls find connection to the true feminine. Encourage and affirm their ability to be at peace in the midst of tough times, their willingness to receive the truth of God’s Word into their hearts, and their capacity to live without anxiety about relationships. Name them “daughters of God” and remind them they are “women of God.” Build the connection without diminishing their ability to express the true masculine.

For example, when a young woman comes to church dressed in an androgynous style, compliment the beauty of her spirit and the tenderness of her dealings with others. When you notice a young woman speaking up regularly in Bible Study, commend her for her willingness to receive the truth of God’s Word in her heart. In all these situations, we build up people’s connection to their gender identity, while still allowing them to express characteristics of the other as they grow into full image-bearers.

Connect Children with Distinctions

Third, we encourage and affirm distinctions that arise from the differences between men and women. Take notice and talk about the different ways men and women think, feel, and behave because of their embodiments as male and female. Be aware of our cultural biases here, however. It can be helpful for children to find connection to things that fall into a cultural norm to encourage a sense of belonging, but we must avoid extremism. Toys, activities, clothes, hairstyles, and interests don’t inherently have gender, even though our culture often associates these things with a particular gender. Girls can like sports, and boys can like music without it meaning anything about their gender or sexual identity. Still, girls will do sports differently than boys; boys will do music differently than girls.

Continuing the Conversation

These tools can provide an environment that affirms children in identity and reduces the risk of confusion. They are, unfortunately, not a guarantee. As parents, we strive to fill our children’s hearts with the truth of God. We help them learn to nurture that truth, protecting it from interference from the world until it can bear fruit. We connect to a church body that helps continue this process, helping us teach and train our children in the truth of God’s Word. However, at some point, we all have to let our children move out from under our protection to protect and nurture the truth themselves. As our children mature, they are ultimately responsible for their own relationship with God and their own understanding of God’s Word. We continue to have ongoing, life-giving conversations with our children even after this point. We encourage a biblical understanding of gender and identity, directing them always to God’s design for their lives.

Our world is slipping further and further into gender and sexual confusion. It is now even more important that we have a grasp on what the world is thinking and understand God’s design for us as men and women. Within our families and churches, we must bless and affirm biblical gender and have ongoing, life-giving conversations about gender and sexuality. We need to have discussions about what it means to be God’s image-bearers in the world. These conversations will equip us and our children to have life-giving conversations with those in our communities. Our children are image-bearers of God. Let us as parents and the Body of Christ strive to impart this understanding into their hearts. May fully live as God has designed them, each one.

This article is the second in a three-part series. Part 1 covers biblical gender; Part 2 addresses gender confusion and ways to have life-giving conversations within families and churches. Part 3 covers how to have life-giving conversations with friends and individuals in your communities.

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Gender, Confusion, and Conversation, Part 1

biblical genderMy first memories of being taught about gender and gender roles are from early elementary school. It was the 1970’s, and Marlo Thomas and friends had released a record album and TV special, Free to Be You and Me. The messages of the songs and skits were designed intentionally to teach children to reach beyond the gender stereotypes of earlier decades and pursue whatever interests we felt would fit our particular personalities.

While some of the individual messages of the songs and skits contained some important truths, the overall message of the work was to encourage an unbiblical, post-modern gender neutrality. We were to understand that men and women are basically the same, and any differences we may see or experience are not to be turned into generalizations about either sex. What I learned was that a woman can do anything a man can do, and a man should be able to do anything a woman can do as well.

Defining My Womanhood

As I grew and became a teenager, this message seemed to be confirmed by my life experience. I was a girl who loved Star Wars, enjoyed math, excelled at school, preferred my Industrial Arts class over Home Economics, and generally got along with boys more than girls. There were more boys who shared my interests, and I struggled with the drama of junior high and high school girl relationships.

Even with all these traditionally male interests, however, I never questioned my own sexuality or gender identity. I was a girl who had a specific set of interests, but I was definitely a girl. (The teachings of the world had not yet reached the fevered pitch of today, where feelings and interests are taken to imply a specific gender identity.) I knew that my passions, interests, and giftings ultimately did not define my womanhood. And yet, I didn’t fully understand what did define my womanhood.

Feelings Versus God’s Design

Looking back, I can see God’s hand protecting and guiding my understanding. A biblical understanding of sex and gender does allow for each of us, man or woman, to have interests and passions in any arena. But those interests and passions, those feelings, are not what gives us our identity as a man or woman. Our identity is found only in God’s design for our lives, how God has created us to bear His image in the world.

Biblical Gender

In order to continue this conversation, we must first agree on some definitions. We use the term sex to describe the physical distinctions between our male and female bodies. We use the term gender to describe the categories of behavior and being—masculine and feminine . God is spirit and does not have a body; therefore, God is not male or female.  However, we do see God exhibit gender; we see God exhibit both masculine and feminine qualities.

Based on what we have seen in Scripture, we define what is truly masculine as the power to act. God demonstrates the true masculine in many ways, including the ordering of chaos in creation (Genesis 1:1-10) and the initiating of relationship with us through Jesus (Romans 5:6-8). Furthermore, we define what is truly feminine as the capacity to be. God reveals to us the true feminine in multiple ways, including resting in peace after creating all things (Genesis 2:1-3) and comparing himself to a mother who nurtures her children (Isaiah 49:15).

Image-Bearers

Genesis recounts for us that God created all humans in His image, both male and female. Each man is a full image-bearer of God, and each woman is also a full image-bearer of God. We each bear God’s image in the deepest part of our being—our spirits. Because we each bear God’s image in our spirits, all humans—male and female—will exhibit both masculine and feminine characteristics.   In fact, in relation to God, we all behave in feminine ways, receiving the Word of truth in our hearts and minds, responding to the relationship that God initiates with us. Additionally, each of us must protect and guard the truth in our hearts so we may stand firm against deception, exercising true masculine strength.

Distinction on Purpose

Still, God’s intention for distinction within creation and especially humanity is clear.  He could have chosen to create just one type of body —an androgynous human that would be like any other human in every way. But that’s not what God did. God created two distinct and different types of persons: male and female. God created us male and female in order to reveal even more fully who God is and how God acts in relationship.

Since we believe God’s creative act is intentional, it follows that our physical bodies reflect a deeper truth about our spirits and souls. That is, knowing God’s character, the decision to make two different types of bodies implies that the male-female distinction extends into our spirits; it is not only a distinction in body. It also encompasses our souls–the connection between body and spirit; home to our emotions, thoughts and decision-making abilities.  Thus, a person with a male body—genetically XY—is fashioned with  a male spirit and soul, and a person with a female body—genetically XX—is created with  a female spirit and soul.

Body, Soul, Spirit

A male body encounters the world differently than a female body, due to physical differences. Likewise, a male soul will think, experience emotions, and make decisions differently than a female soul. Finally, a male spirit needs to be connected to masculine traits to find identity as a man, and a female spirit needs to be connected to feminine traits to find identity as a woman. We encourage males to connect to their ability to initiate relationship, move in strength, and stand for truth in order to be fully connected in body, soul, and spirit. Likewise, we encourage females to nurture beauty and be receptive and nurturing in relationship with others in order to be fully connected in body, soul, and spirit.

Fully Bearing God’s Image

In order to fully reflect the image of God, however, we make sure that these connections are not to the exclusion of the other; that is, a male is also created  to exhibit feminine traits, and a female to also exhibit masculine ones. For example, a male can and should initiate relationship and stand for truth (the true masculine) while also being receptive and nurturing to others and being able to rest (the true feminine). Likewise, a female can and should be receptive and nurturing while also showing strength, standing for truth, and protecting others.  The encouragement of one type of trait does not mean we overlook or dismiss the other.

True Woman’s Lib

For me, this understanding means that I can acknowledge the differences between men and women while also acknowledging that we each can do whatever it is God has gifted us to do. I am a woman because God has created me with a female body, soul, and spirit, and it is good to be a woman. I act in both feminine and masculine ways, but I do those things as a female. To be a woman of God is to bear God’s image into the world through my femaleness.

This is true woman’s liberation! To know that I am perfectly and fully loved as a daughter of the Most High King; to know that I can fully bear God’s image in the world; to know that God has gifted me specifically to do the work designed for me and my gifts; and to do all this through my femaleness, as a woman. May God grant us each the strength and wisdom to stand firm in the truth and lovingly share it with those around us. May we truly and fully bear God’s image in our manhood or womanhood, as God has created each one. May we truly be free to be you and me.

This article is the first in a three-part series. Part 1 covers biblical gender; Part 2 addresses gender confusion and ways to have life-giving conversations within families and churchesPart 3 covers how to have life-giving conversations with friends and individuals in your communities.

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Declaring “Very Good”

gender neutral signRecently, I led of team of eight people from Outpost to Minot, ND to present our newly assembled Distinctions Conference. The conference trains people in an understanding of God’s image and how to stand for the truth of biblical gender in our culture. It was a huge success!

In prepping for the conference, I was struck by the weightiness of the prophetic word we as a ministry have been called to carry. AND I was struck by the weightiness of the spiritual warfare standing against this word. Friends, it was intense.

The enemy is systematically attempting to erase the image of God from the face of our society. Genesis is clear that the image of God is revealed on the earth as male and female. Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness . . .” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Genesis 1:26-27). The gender binary is essential for us to know and experience the image of God.

One major retailer’s decision to eliminate “boys” and “girls” signs from its toys and bedding departments makes a bold statement: gender acknowledgement is passé.

Now I admit, there is nothing wrong with little girls playing with stereotypically boys toys and vice versa. However, the larger issue remains: God’s image is being systematically removed from our culture. There are no boys toys, no girls toys, no boys bathrooms and no girls bathrooms. Ultimately, according to the world’s progression, there are no boys and no girls. No boys and girls, no image of God on the earth. This should alarm us as believers.

Without the image of God present to us visibly and experientially, mass confusion ensues. The image of God is worth fighting for and declaring as “very good”!

Train Up a Child

paper familyMaybe you have heard of the recent child-rearing fad: gender neutral parenting. In this non-directive approach, children are raised in a gender neutral environment—no “boys” colors or “girls” toys. They are left with the paramount responsibility of choosing the gender they feel most comfortable identifying with later in childhood or in adolescence. Boundaries and limitations are balked at—boys can wear girl’s clothes and vice-versa. There are no distinctions.

This is not God’s way. God invented distinction, and He called it good: Creator and created, light and dark, male and female. Distinction is what separates God’s design for His creation from paganism.

Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” In the Bible, parents are exhorted to train their children, and children long for such instruction. What a heavy burden it is for a child to name oneself. My heart grieves for these children who are longing for the blessing of their gender from Mom and Dad. Minus the intervention of Jesus, they will struggle well into adulthood, trying to find the way they should go.

And so we must stand in the gap. I exhort you, Beloved, BLESS AND AFFIRM the gender of every child you encounter. You can say things like, to a little girl, “What a pretty dress you are wearing. You’re so beautiful!” Or, “Girls are awesome!” To a little boy, “I love the tower you built. Boys rock!” Or, “What you just did was very manly.” These little boys and girls need the voice of the Church right now—yours and mine together—to champion them.