What is Gender?

Adam & EveI have read a number of posts recently on the topic of the Gender. Some on the gender of God (here and here) and even more on the theological issue of gender surrounding the complementarian vs. egalitarian debate (one blog I surveyed had nearly 25 entries on this topic alone!). Now, I’m not really interested in arguing whether the Bible actually does speak of God in masculine terms- It certainly does. Furthermore, I’m not interested in arguing whether the Bible means what it says or whether there is a gender-biased writing of scripture that is in need of correction, my beliefs about the Bible limit that kind of a conclusion. What I am interested in is the notion of gender itself. What is it?

The word ‘sex’, when used to refer to a person’s gender, is a biological notion- male or female anatomy. The word ‘gender’ seems to function in an analogous, but not exactly similar way, which is why it can be hard to associate particular characteristics, especially non-biological ones (like anger, joy, tenderness, kindness, or perhaps the way one dresses, etc.), with either men or women alone. That is to say, it would be hard to make a statement like: ‘it is the case that all women and no men have such-and-such personality traits’. Defining things in this way can be extremely difficult.

So, then, while one society may try to anchor gender down by associating it with its understanding of masculinity or femininity, it isn’t the case the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ take the same form from society to society. So, in the end, that doesn’t help either.

As a result of this description difficulty, the easiest anchor for ‘gender’ seems to be a physical one. So, maybe a certain gender is simply synonymous with a certain physical description. But, here is where the theoretical rubber meets the road, what if we can soon operate to completely change, inside and out, a man’s body to a woman’s? Does this change the man’s gender from ‘male’ to ‘female’? The physicalist, at pains to even have to answer such a trivial question, it would seem, would answer ‘yes’. But, what about Christians or, for that matter, even those philosophers who believe in universals? Is there some sort of ‘manhood’ being instantiated by men and ‘womanhood’ exemplified by women that isn’t solely dictated by one’s physical description? Or, maybe more simply, does God view individuals as male and female regardless of physical procedures?

So, Christians? Platos? What do you think?

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16 Responses to “What is Gender?”


  1. 1 Barry Creamer July 8, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    I think this is very nicely put, Joel. My first response is the appeal to C.S. Lewis’ argument that masculinity and femininity are personal attributes not limited to physical distinctions. But then, while at UTA, I encountered the social and humanistic perspective that both sex and gender are cultural concerns only–neither essential to being. Obviously those views are shaped by existentialism. And those views are advocated by appealing to hermaphroditism and trans-gender medicine. My opinion is what you imply yours is by what you are not willing to sacrifice regarding scriptural authority.
    By the way: I enjoy keeping up with you through your site. Sorry to be so slow to get to some of your posts!

  2. 2 Travis Cox July 10, 2008 at 6:30 am

    Joel,

    you’re correct to draw attention to the fact that gender is not determined by culturally defined masculinity or femininity. I seem to remember a television spot produced by National Geographic where they were following a nomadic African tribe. This tribal custom was for the men to dress, in western terms, feminine complete with makeup and hairpieces. Ironically, in their culture, masculinity was defined in terms that we in our western world would traditionally designate for females.

    I think that gender must be defined in two ways. These following characteristics in my view define gender necessarily in the order listed.

    I. Biological: God creates man in the Genesis with biological distinctions known as man and woman. The faculties of this man and women, as God created them both have biological features that are designed for the purpose of filling the earth and perpetuating the cultural mandate as co-heirs or vice regents.

    II. Responsibility: This is extremely pertinent to the argument in that it seems to indicate that God distinguishes gender by responsibility to fulfill the cultural mandate as designated by their biological make up.

    In short I would say gender is defined by the responsibility to submit
    biologically to the will of God in being fruitful and multiply coupled
    with subduing the earth.

    So to answer the question concerning ‘sex’ manipulation I would appeal
    to responsibility. Although the text specifically states biology as
    the first event, one would have to manipulate the text in order to disprove responsibility being the primary divine prerogative in creating biological diversity. Ones choice to interrupt their own physical attributes does not excuse them from the cultural mandate but rather increases our ability to see the fracture created by rebellion.

  3. 3 hewillhaveyou July 13, 2008 at 2:17 am

    What you call GOD is neither man nor woman, regardless of what the bible tells you. For the bible was written by men in a patriarchic time. GOD is above gender, above humans, above all spirits.
    In nature, the traits of man and woman are not always fixed.
    A female lion hunts and kills while many oceanic male creatures carries the eggs of the next generation.
    -hewillhaveyou

  4. 4 joelpatrick July 14, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    Travis,

    Thanks for the comment. I think that, if we are to have kids, we have a responsibility to produce them according the way God has ordained (As of yet, I don’t think there is another way), but I’m not sure that I believe that the command to be fruitful and multiply still applies to us. I think that our new mandate is to be fruitful and multiply disciples. I say more about this here in the comments of another post.

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