Intersex and Christian Theology

Intersex and Christian Theology October 13, 2015

Over the summer, I spent many hours combing through Megan DeFranza’s fascinating sex differencebook Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God. I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic when I say that Megan’s book is quite simply one of the most important and challenging books I’ve read in the last couple years. This is why I’m going to spend a few blogs interacting with it.

Let me say upfront that I consider Megan to be a friend. We don’t know each other very well, but our interactions have been both engaging and humanizing. Megan is a very kind person and it’s clear that she’s passionate about Jesus and his kingdom. And I’m very honored that she wrote a gracious endorsement for my forthcoming book People to Be Loved, even though we come to different conclusions on several interpretive issues related to homosexuality.

I also want to acknowledge that Megan’s book interacts with a large body of research that I’ve yet to engage. In many ways, I don’t feel very qualified to interact with her book—like Dusty Bottoms when he was handed that massive pistola at El Guapo’s birthday party in The Three Amigos. But I still want to interact with her book. In fact, I need to. Her arguments are quite compelling and her claims so significant that it would be irresponsible for me not to interact with to her work. But as I do, I’m going to be completely open and honest about my ignorance with many things she discusses. Hopefully I can learn more about her perspective, because there were several places where I found myself scratching my head thinking, “I don’t know; this just doesn’t seem right.”

And we’ll get to those disagreements in the next few blogs. (Or maybe we should call them “questions” or “thinking-out-loud pushbacks.”) For now, let’s sum up her argument.

megan
Dr. Megan DeFranza

As the title suggests, Megan (pronounced MEE-gan, BTW) explores the significance of sex-difference in Christian theology in light of the presence of intersex persons. Intersex is a newer term that has replaced the older term “hermaphrodite.” Intersex persons are born with some sort of ambiguous biological sex. They don’t fit neatly into the categories of male or female. For instance, some people are born with XY (male) chromosomes, but have external female genitalia. Or they are born with ambiguous male or female genitalia. Or in some cases, their genitalia appears to be male (or female) at birth, but after puberty they begin to experience hormonal changes typical of the opposite sex. A “boy” who looks like a boy and experiences life as a boy during childhood may develop some female biological traits upon puberty (see Sex Difference ch. 1 for more details).

This certainly challenges my assumptions about sexuality. Do we determine someone’s biological sex based on chromosomes or genitalia? What if a baby has gonads and a uterus? Is it a boy or girl? In the case of genital ambiguity, who gets to decide what sex the baby is? Could it be that some people are born neither male or female?

Megan spends more than 40 pages exploring all the different intersex conditions; there’s no way I can do justice to the complexity in this short blog. Her discussion is super helpful and delves into some complicated issues without being overly technical. What I love most about her approach—something that’s woven throughout the entire book—is her compassion and empathy for intersex people. She’s doesn’t treat them like some issue, and she avoids using intersex people as evidence for her larger argument about human sexuality. She treats them like they deserve to be treated: like real people created in God’s beautiful image. I love that she includes testimonies of people who are intersex throughout the book, letting their voices shape our heart and mind on the question of sexuality.

Megan’s overarching point is that the presence of intersex people challenges the common binary model of sexuality. Not everyone is either male or female. “The simplistic binary model is no longer sufficient,” Megan says. “It is dishonest to the diversity of persons created in the image of God” (p. 67). Now you may think that this goes against Christian teaching. The Bible clearly says that people are either male or female. But Megan spends a good deal of time looking at what the Bible says about Eunuchs (Isa 56)—especially “naturally born Eunuchs” (Matt 19)—as a lens to explore the possibility that some people are neither male nor female. “By recovering the concept of the eunuch, theologians will find fresh avenues for rethinking the meanings of sex and gender for theological anthropology…” (p. 67).

The rest of Megan’s book digs into history, theology, biblical studies, sociology, and various other relevant fields in order to challenge the simplistic binary model of human sexuality that most Christians assume to be true. There’s no way I can sum up everything she says. You’ve got to read this book for yourself. But be warned: It will take you a while to digest it. The book is nearly 300 pages of thick research. Yet in my opinion, it’ll be time very spent.

In short, Megan argues that we have wrongly forced “sexual others” into a male/female binary system. Society has done this. Christians have done this. And yet the Bible itself celebrates sexual others (e.g. Eunuchs) as possessing God’s image and becoming full participants in God’s kingdom—without being forced to identify as male or female.

If Megan is right, then her conclusions will have massive consequences for how we think about sex difference, sexuality, gender, homosexuality, and other related topics. Are male and female the only two sexes? If sex difference is necessary for marriage, then who should intersex persons marry when sex differences aren’t clear? Does the presence of intersex persons validate those who identity as gender fluid or non-binary transgender (i.e. they don’t identify as male or female)?

Christians can’t just shove their fingers in their ears and say, “No! No! LahLahLahLahLah…” We need to interact with these questions in order to cultivate a robust Christian anthropology. Megan has done the church a great service in raising many good questions that most of us have never considered.

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