Sometimes a child or teenager flounders through development from boy to man, girl to woman. This struggle has come to be known as “gender dysphoria.” Most of the time – 80 to 95% according to experts – this is merely a phase or a kind of detour eventually overcome by late adolescence. But some in our culture seem bent on doing everything they can to multiply confusion and to ensure increasingly tragic, sometimes irreversible results.
The Atlantic recently published an example of this kind of developmental confusion, and it deserves our attention. In this article, a mother writes of her experience with her Pre-K son who prefers girls’ clothing. The article begins reflectively: “In hindsight, our son was gearing up to wear a dress to school for quite some time. For months, he wore dresses—or his purple-and-green mermaid costume—on weekends and after school. Then he began wearing them to sleep in lieu of pajamas, changing out of them after breakfast.”
This pattern continued unchecked and, it appears, unchallenged, until one day it led to something more existential. Walking into the living room with his clothes for school that day, the boy’s mother found him already dressed, as she explains, “seated on the couch in a gray cotton sundress covered in doe-eyed unicorns with rainbow manes.” She reflects, “He’d slept in it, and in his dreaming hours, I imagine, stood at a podium giving inspirational speeches to an audience composed only of himself. When he’d woken up, he was ready.”
Neither his mother or father disagreed.
Going to school in a dress was such a positive experience for the boy that “[m]ost days since,” his mother writes, “he’s worn a dress from his small collection.”
For the rest of the article, the boy’s mother laments the fact that more boys and men don’t have a desire to be like girls and women. At one point, she even complains, “Exceedingly few parents dress their baby boys in a headband and a dress.” According to her, the fact that more girls want to be like boys than vice versa is evidence of a misogynist society.
The author writes from an explicitly feminist perspective. This feminism, however, is not content with advocating for a kind of equality of opportunity, where a girl is able to be and do anything a boy can. Instead, it seems this sort of feminism won’t be satisfied until an equality of outcome is achieved: every girl not only able to “be” a boy, but every boy wanting to be a girl.
This point aside, embedded in this essay about a very young boy’s confusion and his parents’ response is an important paragraph that lies at the heart of what I believe to be the current confusion on the relationship between gender and sex:
“It’s important to note that there are children who do feel they’ve been born in the wrong body, who long for different anatomy, a different pronoun. Trans kids need to be supported and accepted. And, at the same time, not every boy who puts on a dress is communicating a wish to be a girl. Too often gender dysphoria is conflated with the simple possibility that kids, when not steered toward one toy or color, will just like what they like, traditional gender expectations notwithstanding. There is little space given to experimentation and exploration before a child’s community seeks to categorize them. Boyhood, as it is popularly imagined, is so narrow and confining that to press against its boundaries is to end up in a different identity altogether.”
There is some truth in this paragraph that would be good to affirm. To be sure, the boundaries of boyhood should not exclusively be defined by toys and colors. Blue trucks and pink dolls do not epitomize a kind of platonic form for boyhood and girlhood. But neither must we go to the other extreme and downplay the real, good, and natural differences between boyhood and girlhood, which, when rightly conceived, prepare children for and actively disciple boys and girls into godly manhood or womanhood.
Consider the following verses from Proverbs 29:
The rod and reproof give wisdom,
but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.
When the wicked increase, transgression increases,
but the righteous will look upon their downfall.
Discipline your son, and he will give you rest;
he will give delight to your heart.
According to this proverb, leaving a child to his own “experimentation and exploration,” as the mother in The Atlantic advocates in the paragraph above, leads not to flourishing, but to familial shame. Reproof and discipline toward wisdom are the means by which a parent avoids shame and promotes peace and delight. And as the book of Proverbs makes clear elsewhere, this kind of wisdom is channeled through both scriptural and natural revelation. If we aren’t careful, our neglect of natural revelation becomes a detriment to our ability to make sense of scriptural revelation.
For example, Deuteronomy 22:5 teaches that God considers it an abomination for a woman to wear a man’s garment or for a man to put on a woman’s cloak (Dt 22:5). But this passage leads to an obvious question: what makes a garment manly or a cloak womanly? The lack of a clear answer to questions like this one is near the heart of the apparent confusion in evangelicalism today with regard to matters of gender and sex. This lack, I would submit, stems from an under-appreciation of natural revelation and the fact that some (certainly not all!) cultural norms and traditions are an attempt to reflect the natural differences between male and female.
I would contend cultural norms that can be proved to grow from the natural order and can be shown to complement biblical norms should be embraced and encouraged. Let’s look at two biblical examples for support of this notion.
Returning again to the sartorial instructions of Deuteronomy 22:5, the Israelites inherited a tradition of dress handed down in various iterations from before they were a people. This tradition was no doubt influenced at some level by other cultures. What is fascinating is how the book of Deuteronomy codifies this cultural dress in the law:
“A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.” -Deuteronomy 22:5
How would such a law be regulated? It is clearly operating on the assumption that men’s and women’s garments are inherently distinct and easily distinguished. Here it is important to note that the composition of what makes up and distinguishes men’s garments from women’s is not legislated by the law of God, only that a distinction must exist and should not be transgressed.
In this way, the law of God actually appropriates a cultural norm and codifies it as the proper and even morally correct avenue for plainly and obviously signaling sex difference in life. From where did this cultural norm arise? Out of the natural, biological differences inherent to the sexes and the different clothing needs such inherent differences demand.
What is more, the use of the word “abomination” in Deuteronomy 22:5 signals that obedience to this law transcends membership in God’s covenant people and should be patently obvious to all members of God’s creation. A woman who puts on a man’s garment sows confusion by failing to signal her conformity to her God-given nature. And a man who dresses as a woman tells his Creator, “You are mistaken. I am better this way.”
And if it is an abomination in the eyes of God for a man to wear a woman’s cloak and vice versa, there are definite implications for how we disciple boys becoming men, and girls, women.
Another example of this kind of a biblical affirmation of a natural or cultural norm comes in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, where Paul instructs the church on head coverings. In this passage, Paul makes an appeal to the self-evident character of what “nature” reveals as grounds for his admonition about how to handle head coverings in the church. Paul presents a cultural custom — long hair for women and short hair for men — as flowing directly from the natural differences between men and women. These biological differences have been codified in a cultural custom, and here Paul embraces this custom in his argument as God-ordained. It is good and righteous and just — even for the sake of the angels (1 Cor 11:10) — to be able to distinguish the men from the women, the boys from the girls, in the gathered assembly.
Sometimes when evangelicals say “gender is a cultural construct,” they imply (whether intentionally or not) that gender is an amoral expression of sex about which neither Scripture nor traditional wisdom has anything meaningful to say. But here is where we must let the implications of Deuteronomy 22 and 1 Corinthians 11 correct such notions. Insofar as we uncritically eschew cultural customs, we open ourselves up to rejecting patterns and traditions that may, in fact, turn out to be faithful constructions after the pattern revealed in nature and confirmed by Scripture.
As things go, many attempt to disprove this argument by citing cross-cultural anomalies or disparities in gendered dress. For instance, it is often argued that since men in Scotland traditionally wore skirts (kilts), which would be regarded as womanly dress in other parts of the world, appeals to cultural norms are futile. But this is not so. Instead, that we can identify what a man typically wears in Scotland as distinguished from what a woman typically wears actually serves to establish the argument. In fact, the very frame and argument that we find in The Atlantic article only makes sense in a society that historically and even currently has categories for clothes that are for men and women, boys and girls. Instead of dismissing these categorical differences as merely cultural constructions, we must do more to tell the world how crucial these differences are for cultural life and obedience to our Creator.
To be sure, it would be good for evangelicals to recognize the ways our culture — evangelical culture included — has contributed to gender confusion through definitions of boyhood and manhood, girlhood and womanhood, that have more in common with Hollywood stereotypes than with the Bible. But we also must recognize the world of difference between wisely expanding the boundaries of boyhood and girlhood to include experiences beyond blue cars and pink dolls and encouraging boys to identify — through dress or otherwise — as girls, and girls as boys.
Near the end of her article in The Atlantic, the little boy’s mother concludes,
“This fall, our son will start kindergarten, and with kindergarten comes a school uniform. This means pale blue collared shirts for all the kids, paired with navy blue pants, jumpers, or skirts. Currently there don’t seem to be any boys at the school who choose the jumper or skirt, and it remains to be seen whether our son will maintain his penchant for dresses even when the sartorial binary becomes starker—and the dresses more plain.
“Whatever he decides is fine with us.”
But this is dishonoring to her little boy’s design, whom God created male. Boys should be discipled to act and dress like boys becoming men, and girls should be discipled to act and dress like girls becoming women. Boys and girls who are encouraged to do otherwise are being taught not only to chafe against the natural order, but to embrace an abomination forbidden by God in His holy revelation.
You, too, can help support the ministry of CBMW. We are a non-profit organization that is fully-funded by individual gifts and ministry partnerships. Your contribution will go directly toward the production of more gospel-centered, church-equipping resources.