Sex Difference in Christian Theology by Megan K. DeFranza
A biblical anthropology from lived experience
reviewed by John Seel
It’s time boomer parents learned something from their millennial children, whose take on reality is both distinctive and instructive. Millennials eschew abstractions and the binary framing of issues. From their lived experience, they know that reality faced honestly does not fall into neat categories. Reality is messy. Truth is more shades of grey than black and white.
In times of confusion or unease, the boomer generation’s habit is to look for places of foundational security, incontrovertible starting points from which we can take our stand. These incontrovertible starting points are far fewer than we image. And while one does not have to assume postmodern relativism, which is to fall off the horse on the other side, a critical realist posture relativizes many of our most cherished shibboleths.
These lessons are learned most often from personal encounters—and rarely from an academic book. The many who have changed their minds on same-sex relationships do so because of a loved one who has come out or a close relationship with an LGBT friend. Relationships, far more than arguments, change minds.
The LGBT issues facing the church are myriad and fraught with high emotion. Biblical proof-texting or selective pangs of conscience are often a veiled mask over latent homophobic sentiments. And with the cultural wind at their back, few LGBT advocates appreciate or respect religious conviction as anything more than sexism. A cognitive impasse reigns. Honest conversations are unusual, and careful reflections on the points of disagreement with shared respect for biblical authority are infrequent.
It is for these reasons that Megan K. DeFranza’s new book, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God, is such an achievement. This book stems from her dissertation in the Department of Theology at Marquette University. DeFranza understands the postmodern turn but remains committed to seeking a biblically orthodox anthropology. Rather than abstract theology imposed from above—the Enlightenment habit—she starts from the complexity of lived experience. She particularly highlights the experience of the intersex person.
This book is a direct challenge to binary gender essentialism, the notion that at the root of reality are male and female made in the image of God. Addressing the questions “What is the human?” and “What is the image?” she is aware that “Every Christian account of humanity begins in Genesis chapter 1.” While DeFranza takes Adam and Eve seriously as real people, she makes no effort to demystify the Genesis account and acknowledges that Jesus refers to our creational status in his answer to questions about divorce in Matthew 19. In fact, much of the book is a careful examination of this passage.
DeFranza is a theologian who is well aware of the feminist and LGBT critiques of the biblical narrative, yet her thesis and argument cannot be easily dismissed as liberalism. She has taught at Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and this is a book that deserves to be taken seriously by evangelicals and Catholics alike. Her main foils for her critique are the late evangelical theologian Stanley Grenz and Pope John Paul II. The Pope’s views known as the Theology of the Body have largely shaped my own thinking, and as such her critique struck home. Nor do I have a snappy comeback to dull the force and implications of her analysis. Her book sits like an undigested meal in the pit of my stomach.
This is a book that will require (and deserves) multiple readings. Part of her success lies in her humble and understanding tone. “It can be disconcerting to have one’s presuppositions challenged—particularly presuppositions so closely tied to personal identity and theological orthodoxies as notions of sex, gender, and sexuality tend to be,” writes DeFranza. “To take up a defensive posture and resist change would be natural, reasonable reactions, and yet, other aspects of the image of God require a different response … Humility and love for the other, particularly a love for intersex persons whose presence among us has been overlooked, marginalized, and outright oppressed, behooves us to make space for them and to listen to their concerns.” She is aware that showing the weakness of the binary model of gender differentiation will for some be seen as grounds for abandoning heteronormativity, but this is not the stated purpose of her book.
“It can be disconcerting to have one’s presuppositions challenged—particularly presuppositions so closely tied to personal identity and theological orthodoxies as notions of sex, gender, and sexuality tend to be. To take up a defensive posture and resist change would be natural, reasonable reactions, and yet, other aspects of the image of God require a different response … Humility and love for the other, particularly a love for intersex persons whose presence among us has been overlooked, marginalized, and outright oppressed, behooves us to make space for them and to listen to their concerns.”
The main purpose of her book is to make room for intersex persons within our understanding of gender. “Intersex is a term used to describe persons who do not fit into standard medical descriptions of male and female,” she points out. It is an umbrella concept to cover a wide range of variations in sex development. Intersex persons are those whose genetic makeup is a combination of male and female chromosomes or who possess ambiguous genitalia. DeFranza devotes a considerable portion of the book to educating her reader on the medical, sociological, psychological history of intersex persons. With the heightened public discussion of the transgender experience and sexual reassignment surgery, this section is invaluable. The significance of the intersex experience lies not in their number but in their challenge to our preconceived ideas about gender.
She writes, “The problem is the two-sex system, which leaves no room for naturally occurring variations from the dominant categories of male and female.” If sexuality is to be understood as a continuum rather than two categories, we’re talking about a very different frame on reality. Are masculinity and femininity, as the LGBT advocates insist, merely cultural conceits? Does Christianity require a two-sex system? Without abandoning the importance of male and female, DeFranza wants to create room for intersex individuals and to do so in a thoroughly biblical manner. She turns to a study of Jesus’ remarks about eunuchs (Matthew 19:12). “I will argue that by recovering the concept of eunuch, theologians will find fresh avenues for rethinking the meaning of sex and gender for theological anthropology and a starting place to address the challenges and incorporate the insights learned from intersex.” The binary model of gender is “dishonest to the diversity of persons created in the image of God.” Readers then receive a graduate education about eunuchs in the Bible and in church history.
Two chapters that unpack the developing history of theological anthropology follow this analysis of eunuchs. Here one gets a clear sense of how many of our ideas about the nature of the person are influenced by prior philosophical commitments from Plato to postmodernism.
The final third of the book is a careful analysis of the work of Stanley Grenz and Pope John Paul II. Here her critique is of their ontological gender essentialism. “By overemphasizing sex and gender difference, and its essential or constitutive relation to human personhood, both evangelicals and Roman Catholics are running headlong into theological trouble,” she claims. Specifically, she is concerned about how women relate to the incarnate male Jesus if they are made of an ontologically different substance. “Presenting not only Jesus’ body but also his soul as radically, ontologically different from the bodies and souls of women puts Jesus’ humanity beyond the reach of over half the human race,” she laments.
Reflecting on the reality and experience of intersex bodies provides support for arguing against the construal of sex difference as an ontological difference. Biologically, we see that male and female are made of the same stuff and remain undifferentiated in the early weeks of gestation. There are differences in the genders, but these differences are not ontological in nature. Melissa Hines is quoted as saying, “In fact, although most of us appear to be either clearly male or clearly female, we are each complex mosaics of male and female characteristics.” Having dealt with what it means to be human, DeFranza turns to the question of what it means to be made in the image of God, both male and female.
While applauding the recent theological turn to the social imago, DeFranza is concerned that both Grenz and John Paul II “emphasize the place of sexuality and heterosexual marriage to such an extant that they risk transforming the social imago into the spousal/sexual imago.” Here she attacks the master metaphor of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, the spousal meaning of the body. This view she claims fails to take into consideration the bodies of eunuchs and intersex persons. “His proposal, which bases Christian love on the spousal meaning of the body, places the intersex person outside the possibility of love.” She is also concerned with the spiritualizing of sex, which she acknowledges stems from the marriage analogy in Saint John of the Cross. Practically, this spiritualized sexuality adds burdens to married Christians and theologically risks sexualizing Trinitarian relationality. She wants to argue that the social imago is not the sexual. A key to her thinking is that “Adam and Eve can be interpreted as the progenitors rather than the paradigm of other kinds of relations … Within the creation narratives, sexual differentiation and sexual desire provide the fruitful foundation for human relationality, not its paradigmatic form.”
The sexual is important, but it is not everything. The spousal is more than merely sexual. In this she follows Roman Catholic David Matzko McCarthy. “McCarthy’s critique of the theological foundations of romantic personalism points the way to the necessary correction of these traditions.” DeFranza wants to broaden gender to include intersex and wants to relocate “love from the binary model of spousal sexuality into the wider community of extended family, neighborhood, and ecclesia in order to retain the social imago while delivering it from sexual distortions.”
Finally, she wants to understand the true image in Christological and eschatological terms. The paradigmatic is found in Jesus, not in Adam and Eve. DeFranza wants to extend Grenz’s observation to include intersex people: “Humankind created in the imago Dei is none other than the new humanity conformed to the imago Christi, and the telos toward which the Old Testament creation narrative points is the eschatological community of glorified saints.”
I am not yet in a position to critique her proposal. Her views are well argued and respectful of biblical authority. I suspect that a Catholic critique will involve discussing the nature of sacramental reality and her latent Gnostic turn that wants to disembody spiritual reality from sex. Moreover, Theology of the Body do not advocate separating eros from agape as DeFranza seeks to do. It is an abstract division that distorts the holistic meaning and symbolism of conjugal love. And yet, any critique of this book must itself come to terms with the reality of intersex persons. The consistent disregard for this complex lived reality can be equally Gnostic.
“Conservative theologians cannot continue to speak about sex difference in ways that avoid scientific studies of sex, gender, and sexuality,” DeFranza writes. “Recognizing this complexity, all must refrain from issuing hasty conclusions that either dismiss intersex for its supposed association with alternative sexualities or conflate intersex with LGBTQ perspectives in the hopes of justifying the latter.” For the reality of Christ’s real presence is over and in all reality, and the life of Christ within must to be acknowledged in all God’s children, including intersex believers.
Reality is inherently messy. It was into this mess that Christ came and will come again. We may wish life to be neat and clean, but it rarely is. It’s time for older folks like me to follow our kids’ lead into the messiness of life. This book is a bracing starting point.
John Seel is a cultural renewal consultant and former director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation.