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Topics: Public Square, The Nashville Statement

Asking the Right Questions about Intersex Athletes — Part 2

August 23, 2016

By Denny Burk

Yesterday, we looked at a controversy about an Olympic athlete who is reported to suffer from an intersex condition. Today, we acknowledge that from a Christian perspective, there are larger issues for us to consider than the male and female divisions of Olympic competition. Cases like this one raise questions about the givenness of the male-female binary. Christians have always affirmed the teaching of Genesis 1:27, which says

“And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

Jesus himself reaffirmed the givenness of this binary in his remarks on divorce in Matthew 19:4. This distinction between male and female underlies the very fabric of biblical anthropology. It is no small point to the Christian faith.

The question is how do intersex people fit into this binary? Does their very existence call into question the legitimacy of the biblical binary between male and female? Some theologians have argued that it does and would like to convince Christians to abandon the traditional understanding of texts like Genesis 1:27 and Matthew 19:4 (DeFranza 2015: 287-88). Are they right? Is the existence of intersex a defeater of the male-female paradigm?

The answer to that question is a resounding “no.” Intersex is not evidence of God’s creative intention but of the brokenness that has entered creation as a result of the Fall. The original creational good of Eden is a male-female binary with all the reproductive capacity that entails (Gen. 1:28). Because of the curse, the entire cosmos (including our bodies) has been subjected to futility—to conditions such as cancer, Parkinson’s, blindness, and yes even to intersex conditions (Rom. 8:20, 23). These painful bodily maladies are not going to persist in the age to come but instead will be healed by it (Rev. 21:4).

But what of those who must endure painful and perplexing intersex conditions in this age? What about Christians who are trying to figure out what discipleship looks like in an intersexed body? Though more can and should be said in answer to such questions (Burk 2013: 169-83), I would commend a few guidelines for thinking through this difficult issue as a Christian:

(1) We should agree with God that His original distinction between male and female is not just good but “very good” (Gen. 1:31; cf. 1 Tim. 4:4). The spirit of the age is trying to convince us that the biological differences between male and female is of little consequence and can be safely ignored. What is primary is not one’s bodily identity but their “gender identity.” This point of view values self-expression more than God’s revelation in nature and in scripture. This is the unbiblical logic of transgenderism (which must not be confused with intersex). But this is not a faithful way to think about God’s world and our place in it. All of us must agree with what God says to be good. And in this case, the male-female binary is something that God affirms as “very good.” We should too.

(2) For intersex persons, that means that they should try to let God’s revelation shine its full light on their situation. One thing that nature reveals is that the sexual binary doesn’t begin and end in one’s reproductive anatomy. It begins at conception when one’s sex chromosomes come together as either XX (female) or XY (male).

“It is the Y chromosome which determines the sex of the embryo as absence of a Y chromosome which determines the sex of the embryo as absence of a Y chromosome which determines the sex of the embryo as absence of a Y chromosome always results in the development of a female while even in the presence of multiple X chromosomes, the presence of a Y chromosome will result in the development of a male” (Gard 1998: 133).

Because of this reality, we should not ignore the chromosomal indicators of one’s sex, even if an intersex condition has caused other physical ambiguities. Psychiatrist and urologist William Reiner was a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, and he warns against treating persons with a Y chromosome as female (quoted in Melton 2001: 2110). Insofar as these binary indicators can be known, we should embrace them as indicators of God’s good creative intention.

(3) When the underlying chromosomal situation is unknown or when there are other ambiguating factors, this is not an occasion for despair. In the very same text that Jesus affirms the male-female binary, he also acknowledges a category of persons who bear striking resemblance to intersex persons.

“For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (Matt. 19:12).

A eunuch is someone who does not have the biological capacity for sexual relations “either through a birth defect, castration, or a voluntary life of abstinence” (ESVSB 2008: 1861). What is clear is that Jesus knew of people who through no fault of their own were born with the inability to experience sexual relations and procreation. Nevertheless, this physical limitation was no limitation on their discipleship. When Jesus said these words, God had already revealed through the prophet Isaiah that devout eunuchs would receive an inheritance “better than sons and daughters” (Isaiah 56:3-5). Indeed, one of the first gentile converts to Christ was a eunuch (Acts 8:26-40).

If you are an intersex person and feel estranged from your own body, you need not feel estranged from Jesus. Jesus loves intersex persons. He knows what it is like for a person to suffer for no fault of his own. And he offers you hope and life. His powerful death and resurrection address not only your condition but the human condition and provides forgiveness and reconciliation to every sinner who receives Christ by faith. This message brings with it a promise of the renewal of all things in the age to come, which means that all of our broken bodies will one day be what God intended them to be. He knows every one of your tears and offers to wipe away every last one of them (Rev. 21:4). If you have felt your body to be a barrier to life and joy, it is no barrier to Jesus and to real life and real joy. They can be yours because of him.

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