Some errors are explicit and easy to spot, while others are not stated in so many words and only manifest by way of implication. Christa McKirland’s chapter falls squarely in the first category. Historically, egalitarians have attempted to draw a bright line between themselves and those who would advocate for LGBTQ identities. Christa McKirland’s essay, however, is the first I’ve seen that not only rejects gender essentialism but also embraces transgenderism. And that is what, in the end, sets this chapter apart from previous editions of Discovering Biblical Equality.
The thesis of Christa McKirland’s chapter, “Image of God and Divine Presence: A Critique of Gender Essentialism,” is nearly summed up in its title. McKirland is critical of gender essentialism, which she defines as the idea that “men and women are essentially different on the basis of being a man or a woman” (283). Instead of gender essentialism, McKirland proposes that human nature is defined quite apart from masculinity or femininity, and instead by the image of God, which includes having special status in being like God, special function through exercising dominion, and special access to and representation of God’s presence — all of which are equally shared between men and women.
McKirland is up front about the payoff of rejecting gender essentialism: “the Scriptures do not make maleness and femaleness central to being human, nor can particular understandings of masculinity and femininity be rigidly prescribed, since these are culturally conditioned” (286). If one wonders what McKirland means by critiquing “gender essentialism,” whether she means masculinity/femininity or maleness/femaleness, one has already identified a central problem with her proposal. At times, she seems to be rejecting cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity, while in the end she seems to reject as normative maleness and femaleness altogether. Importantly, this rejection is not just an entailment of her ideas, but at the very heart of her proposal as she embraces transgenderism in the concluding section of the chapter.
Rejecting Gender Essentialism
McKirland’s chapter is a veritable parade of egalitarian commitments and implications when it comes to gender. There are fundamental questions at the heart of the complementarian-egalitarian debate that McKirland’s proposal, and the broader egalitarian project of which she is a part, is hard-pressed to answer reasonably. What is a woman? What are the differences between men and women? If differences are identifiable, which matter for how we live as men and women? What is the connection between manhood and maleness, womanhood and femaleness? McKirland’s anti-gender essentialism is not only unable to answer these questions in a satisfying way, but she heaps up a pile of error on this unsure foundation at just the point where our culture is most confused today, transgenderism, because of an inability to answer these questions properly.
McKirland does not explicitly define her understanding of “essence” and “accident” in her rejection of gender essentialism. But I do think she assumes the philosophical definition: “essence” refers to a property something must have, while “accident” refers to a property something happens to have but could lack. This is why McKirland spends much of the first part of her chapter attempting to define humanity’s essence apart from maleness and femaleness. If gender is not essential to humanity, what is? For McKirland, a human’s essence is defined by the image of God — a property, importantly for McKirland’s egalitarian project, that is shared by both men and women. Here I should like to register a point of agreement: complementarians also believe that a human person’s essence should be defined in part by the image of God, in which men and women are made equally. The image of God is what sets humanity, both men and women, apart from the rest of material creation. But now a disagreement: the Bible also teaches that humans are psychosomatic units, body and soul, which means embodiment is part of a human person’s essence. Embodiment, for instance, is one aspect of what sets humanity apart from angels. And with embodiment comes a sexual distinction — human bodies are either male or female, and this according to God’s design through the presence or absence of a Y chromosome, which contributes to the formation of primary and secondary sex characteristics.
The dimorphic nature of humanity as man or woman, male or female, is established from the very first chapter of the Bible. But McKirland’s project leads her to downplay differences in Genesis 1 and 2: “The focus of the texts of Genesis 1–2 is on humanity’s unique relationship to God and their function on behalf of God.” While this may be true at face value, this statement leads McKirland to ignore other, obvious features of the text — even important features Paul himself draws on when he speaks to the church about men and women in, for example, 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2.
For instance, McKirland nowhere mentions that the creation mandate in Genesis 1, where she rightfully gets her understanding of dominion, also includes the command to be fruitful and multiply, which requires sexual complementarity. Neither does she mention that Genesis 2 teaches that the man was created first, from the ground, and the woman from his side. Neither does McKirland mention that Genesis 2 says the woman was created by God to be a “helper suitable” for the man. Without evidence, McKirland argues that “while maleness and femaleness do feature in these creation accounts, masculinity and femininity do not” (296). By any definition of masculinity and femininity vis a vis maleness and femaleness, this is simply not true. In the original Hebrew, God’s special creation of man is referred to in Genesis 1:27 as “male” (zakar) and “female” (neqebah) — terms that make literal reference to complementary sexual reproductive organs. Then in Genesis 2, man is referenced not by sex — maleness and femaleness — but by gender — masculinity and femininity. God first makes the man (adam) out of the ground, and then subsequently makes the woman (isha) out of his side and brings her to the man (ish) to be named.
This divine action precipitates the first marriage between the first man and first woman, which becomes the paradigm for all human marriages: the male man and the female woman joined together by covenant in a complementary, one-flesh union. McKirland mentions this union, but she contends it is the relationship, not complementarity, that is in focus: “The reason the relationship is the focus, and not the maleness or femaleness of the parties, is its intimacy and voluntary nature: ‘the relation of Christ and church must be as close as that’” (298). But this raises a question: does this mean that any intimate, voluntary relationship is a marriage? Gay marriage proponents would say — do say — exactly what McKirland argues here. But a biblical account of the first two chapters of Genesis does not downplay sexual differences and recognizes that marriage, and the offspring of the covenant union, is the meaning of these differences, contrary to McKirland’s emphasis on “relationship.”
One wonders if it is McKirland’s willingness to downplay difference by an avoidance of these significant points in God’s revelation that leads her to be comfortable using the gender-neutral pronoun “Godself” (292), something that is nowhere attested in the Scriptures and contradicts the historic Christian creeds and orthodoxy such as the Apostle’s Creed, where Christians universally confess “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord.” His, not “Godself,” is the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
But these exegetical points aside, what would it mean to say that McKirland is right that gender is not essential? Wouldn’t this necessarily mean that a human person could exist without being a man or woman? In other words, if we are to follow McKirland down this road of rejecting gender essentialism, how do we not end up promoting androgyny?
One might respond that a rejection of gender essentialism does not mean a rejection of sex essentialism. But this does seem to be part of what is entailed in McKirland’s project. Later in her chapter, McKirland argues that if being male or female is essential to being human, then Jesus, as a male, could not have redeemed the female half of humanity, because he did not assume their female nature, and thus left off some “essence” of humanity that was not redeemed. But this line of argumentation fails to grapple with how the Bible presents Adam as the covenant head of all humanity by virtue of physical descent — he didn’t have to be female to pass on a female nature to his daughters, for instance — while also failing to appreciate Christ’s federal headship of all the redeemed, precisely because he comes as the second Adam.
But instead of recognizing and pulling back from the logical entailments of rejecting gender essentialism for what it means to live as men and women according to God’s design, McKirland doubles down on the most heterodox implications by concluding her chapter with a full embrace of transgenderism.
A radical rejection of gender essentialism severs gender from sex . But what, then, do we do with sex? Toward the end of her chapter, McKirland seems to recognize this dilemma and wrestles with it when she says, “we do follow Jesus as embodied persons, and for this reason our bodies matter. What is accidental (in the philosophical sense, meaning that one would be human regardless of one’s sexed embodiment) is not therefore incidental” (305). If sex is not essential, but neither is it incidental, what is it? Right after this statement McKirland claims that “a rejection of gender essentialism does not entail a rejection of sex difference or a rejection of the importance of sexed embodiment.” Good as far as it goes, and perhaps the reader could believe her that her egalitarianism does not commit her to seeing sex as incidental — if she would have stopped there. But instead, McKirland follows this statement with the testimony of an individual named Austen Hartke, who identifies as a “transgender Christian man” (306). Before we go on, it is important to cut through the doublespeak and confront reality: this is a biological female who claims to be a man. But McKirland treats Hartke’s biology as incidental and uncritically uses masculine pronouns for this woman.
Speaking of Hartke, a biological female, McKirland writes,
He suggests that, for some transgender persons, the feeling of dissonance between the body that they were born with and the gender that they believe themselves to be is rooted in ‘the gendered expectations that other people hold them to that cause a problem.’ When we have rigid definitions of what it means to be masculine or what it means to be feminine, which are bound to personhood, and a person does not fit into his or her assigned gender category, then there can be a feeling that a person is in the wrong body. Hartke suggests that this transgender experience is an external effect of the fall — when the expectations of others cause personal angst. Given what has been argued thus far in this chapter, this is an angst that could be lessened by a loosening of the definitions, surveillance, and enforcement of masculinity and femininity. Thus, the compassionate, sensitive, theatrical boy is no longer shamed for being girly, nor is the headstrong, agentic, athletic girl shamed for being boyish (306–7).
Now if McKirland stopped here, we would have significant problems with her use of masculine pronouns for a female, but we could perhaps see the point about the potential harms of stereotypes. But it would certainly be relevant to note that our age, which is characterized by the complete overthrow of such stereotypes and gender bending, has only seen a proliferation of individuals identifying as, and playing up the stereotypes of, the opposite gender.
But McKirland continues in what I might offer as the most radical paragraph of this book, which is not insignificant, as she is one of the book’s editors:
However, Hartke goes on to describe another experience that he classifies as an internal effect of the fall. For those for whom the feeling of being in the wrong body ‘would exist even if you picked them up and set them on a desert island,’ he comments that, in his view, ‘this is the only point at which it might possibly be justifiable to think of gender dysphoria as a product of the fall — the point at which the trans person experiences suffering that is neither self-inflicted nor caused by others.’ In these cases, for whatever reason, trans persons genuinely feel like they should have differently sexed anatomies. Given what has been discussed above in terms of sex chromosomes and sexual development, in utero, to puberty, and throughout life — sexed embodiment is complicated. Consequently, for some people their givenness is not experienced as a gift. For some people, things do not seem as they should be. Where intense controversy remains is in how to address this; Mark Yarhouse’s work provides several frameworks from which to think through how these persons might move forward. The implications of this chapter, however, are not to provide a moral prescription for transgender persons, but to (1) show how gender-essentialist logic may actually be contributing to the internal angst of some trans persons, and (2) to emphasize that the priority of the scriptural text is on following Jesus, not being ‘real men’ or ‘real women.’ For those who are discerning whether their givenness should be altered, the New Testament rubric for any such choice (which would include all bodily modifications, not just those affecting sexual anatomy) is how such can be done in submission to the Spirit and in order to become more like Christ (307–8).
To reread that last sentence is to understand not only the trajectory, but the application, of the egalitarian hermeneutic. If there are no meaningful differences between men and women, then there are no meaningful differences between males and females. The functional interchangeability of the egalitarian project and its rejection of gender essentialism inevitably leads to an ontological interchangeability, which is the complete abandonment of God’s design, who makes us male and female in his image.
Before the third edition of Discovering Biblical Equality, complementarians had to demonstrate the connection between egalitarianism and the erasure of male-female distinction by logic and inference. But now McKirland’s chapter connects the dots for us, and it brings the Christian to a decision point. Instead of rejecting gender essentialism to embrace an ideology that leads to the overthrow of the very foundations of nature in God’s good design, we should hold fast to everything that is good, true, and beautiful, which includes complementary humanity created male and female in God’s image for his glory.
Colin J. Smothers serves as Executive Director of CBMW and Executive Editor of Eikon. He is an adjunct professor at Boyce College and directs the Kenwood Institute in Louisville, KY. Smothers is the co-author of Male & Female He Created Them (Christian Focus, 2023) and author of In Your Mouth and In Your Heart (Pickwick, 2022)
 See, for instance, Colin J. Smothers, “Is the Slippery Slope Actually Slippery? Egalitarianism and the Open-and-Affirming Position” 9Marks Journal (December 2019), 168–77; “The Fallacy of Interchangeability,” Eikon, 1, no. 1 (Spring 2019), 8–14.
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