Bruce Jenner’s headline-grabbing transformation into “Caitlyn” has captured our society’s attention. Whether Christians or theologians are ready or not, questions about how sexual identity is formed are now inescapable. But what about those who are “intersex”—born with bodily or biological conditions that blur the physical line between male and female? Having no such celebrity figurehead, they have received considerably less attention, even within the conservative evangelical world.
In Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God, theologian Megan DeFranza attempts to fill this gap. The book provides a robust theological framework that “makes space” for intersex individuals while holding on to core evangelical commitments. DeFranza is right that conservative evangelicals need to attend closely to the ways intersex individuals might challenge traditional “gender binaries” between male and female. But her book leads into a tangled theological thicket, without suggesting a workable path forward.
DeFranza’s book is divided into two sections. In the first, she outlines how the medicalizing of our bodies made “intersex” conditions invisible to our contemporary Western consciousness. She then plumbs Jesus’s claim that “some are born eunuchs” (Matt. 19:12), suggesting that the Bible contains resources for recognizing those who do not fit the standard understanding of male and female. And she provides a hasty overview of how we ostensibly went from one sex (male) in the classical period, to two in modernity (male and female), to the postmodern proliferation of sexes. (One theorist proposes five sexes, while another suggests hundreds.)
The book’s second half develops DeFranza’s theological response to intersex people, which emerges through her critiques of many figures, particularly evangelical theologian Stanley Grenz and Pope John Paul II. Among DeFranza’s varied and sometimes incisive critiques, she argues that Adam and Eve are not so much prototypes or paradigms for “otherness,” but can be interpreted as “the fountainhead of others who may become more ‘other’ than their parents could have ever conceived.” Genesis, then, is only the beginning of the narrative through which Christians understand their personal identity. As she puts it, “Sex identity as male or female may be essential to personal identity. But there are more essentials than these two.”
Space in the Kingdom
Not only does DeFranza’s account try to reframe how we should think about Genesis. It also has implications for our understanding of Christ, the Trinity, and the coming kingdom of God. DeFranza argues that the relationships which best embody the image of God are the bonds we form in churches, rather than the bonds formed in our pursuit of sexual intimacy. As she puts it, the “social imago as the ecclesiological/eschatological community is the proper image of the social Trinity,” rather than marital and procreative communities of male and female. On her view, then, there is “space” for intersex people “as intersex” in the kingdom, a space that should be inaugurated here and now.
DeFranza also considers the possibility that Jesus himself was intersex, as an “affirmation of the full humanity of intersex persons, their place in society and in the community of faith.” As she puts it, “The vision of an intersexed Christ (or of a black Christ or a female Christa) is useful for challenging the orthodoxy and hegemony of a male/masculine Christ to whom many cannot relate — either via similarity (as a male in the image of a male Christ) or via complementarity (as the female/feminine bride).”
Her argument is subtle, and many parts are commendable. She’s right to emphasize that our “completeness” as individuals happens through the church’s sibling relationships. And her claim that “marriage is not the icon of the social Trinity, but an image of divine love” is similarly helpful. Conservative evangelicals have done a poor job of articulating how different models of God’s love interact. We’ve also been susceptible to uncritically baptizing our contemporary “nuclear family” as the preeminent way of faithful obedience.
But it is not clear whether DeFranza’s shift in emphasis requires the changes in the substance of what she proposes. After all, her critiques of John Paul II and Grenz aim at “dangers in their proposals.” Their views “risk marginalizing” intersex individuals and anyone who cannot marry. But whether such accounts necessarily “marginalize” intersex individuals depends on what non-marginalization—inclusion—requires. And here, DeFranza’s own proposals threaten to undermine traditional accounts of sex and marriage, rather than correcting their imbalances.
For instance, DeFranza objects to the medical community’s recent adoption of “sexual development disorders” to describe a variety of conditions falling under the “intersex” umbrella, because “sex, gender, and sexuality, while distinct, cannot easily be disentangled from each other.” That may be true; but DeFranza’s unwillingness to frame them as disorders betrays her own captivity to the sexual revolution’s obscuring of the inherent reproductive design of our bodies. “Sexual” organs are reproductive organs; whatever else they might reveal about human nature, they at least have an inherent biological purpose intelligible both to the medical community and to Christian ethics.
Using “sexual development disorders” to describe intersex conditions is only “marginalizing” if we think “sex identity” can be separated from our bodily reproductive capabilities, as the sexual revolution promised it could be. If, instead, we treat them as unfortunate, yet often correctable developments that have a pervasive effect on a person’s life and opportunities—as we do with other disorders—then they simply present one more opportunity for Christians to bestow welcome, compassion, and support, even while affirming the binary of male and female for theological reasons. Paradoxically, such a stance affirms the medical account of such disorders, science that DeFranza repeatedly accuses conservative Christians of ignoring.
Additionally, I have questions about what DeFranza’s model of “inclusivity” means on other contested moral questions. Although she admirably attempts to thread impossibly-small needles, she is not always persuasive. For instance, she tries to so stave off the more extreme consequences of rejecting the (allegedly) “simplistic binary model” of male and female. Among her other objections, she worries that proposals that affirm polyamory and communal sexual practices “come with baggage likely to prejudice more conservative Christians against even their more modest contributions.” She also worries that their advocates “will have a harder time making sense of the normative nature of marriage in Scripture and tradition,” and, in response to one such advocate, suggests that the affirmation of more extreme practices “leads one to wonder just where she draws the line for sexual ethics.”
But given her suggestion that the male-female binary is “oppressive,” why DeFranza herself draws the line at “monogamous unions” is less than clear. As she points out, the weight of Scripture and tradition are opposed to same-sex unions. But she’s sympathetic to “pastoral accommodations” around “monogamous unions” that might bring together those who disagree about homosexuality. In that case, why not offer “pastoral accommodations” for polygamous unions as well? And if, as DeFranza argues, male-female marriages are only one pattern of divine love, and that Adam and Eve are “only the beginning,” why can’t we affirm polyamorous individuals, provided they are “godly” and “Spirit-filled”? DeFranza is right to elevate our “ecclesial identity” above our sexual identity. But that is hardly incompatible with preserving a gender and sex binary both inside and outside the church..
A Jesus for Everyone
At the heart of DeFranza’s book is an assumption about what inclusion demands of us. But why, as a condition of feeling welcomed, must the Jesus we worship possess traits we deem “essential” to our self-understandings? And why stop at sex or race? Perhaps it will be useful to construct a Canadian or British Jesus for the expats among us. (The contingencies of geography may be just as essential and pervasive for a person’s self-understanding—as tourists in strange places will readily understand). Or maybe we should hold up a football-playing Jesus on Super-Bowl Sunday.
Cheeky examples aside, DeFranza’s approach to inclusion risks making the first-century, Jewish, and—yes—male body of Jesus irrelevant to his identity and salvific work. Obscuring the reasons why those dimensions may have been essential within the Jewish narrative that Christ lives out may actually cause us to misunderstand their point, and to misconstrue our own humanity as a result. What happens when we fail to see how the life of the male body of the divine man Jesus includes the entire cosmos within its scope? The natural outcome is an ever-expanding list of subcommunities and identities within the church, which obscures our common status as “other” to the irreducibly unique Incarnate Lord. We’re prone, these days, to taking offense at the maleness of Jesus. But reimagining and reconstructing Christ’s body in our own images can only introduce new and more pernicious dualisms into the faith.
These are, I admit, fine-grained critiques. And DeFranza’s work should be commended for pushing conservative theologians to greater attentiveness toward difficult questions about the nature and boundaries of sexual identity. But the way forward sometimes requires walking backward, behind not only the assumptions of theologians we read but also the assumptions of the world in which we live. Conservative Christians need guides to help us respond to the challenges at hand. Despite its best efforts, Sex Difference in Christian Theology seems too deeply immersed in the assumptions of the sexual revolution to reliably fill that role.
Matthew Lee Anderson is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith (Bethany House).