Science Ch.21 - What Is Male and Female?

A surprising proportion of babies are born physically intersex – that is, not identifiably male or female. The Bible only condemns those who live contrary to their nature, which implies that God accepts us as we are – however we are born.

She was a shy twelve-year-old, like me. When she kissed me before jumping on a bus, I fell in love a little – in a hopelessly confused way. We were both much more confused a week later when she reported what hospital tests had revealed. She had been diagnosed with a severe intersex state: she had both ovaries and internal testes – that is, “she” was both male and female.

       When I looked into the issue, I was surprised to learn that more than one in two thousand babies need a specialist to determine their gender, and surgery was often used to “normalize” them soon after birth.1 Increasingly, surgery is discouraged at a young age, so that the child can have a chance to establish their gender identity later in life. Others, like my friend, have intersex problems that only reveal themselves at puberty. Understandably, very few of those with these conditions talk about it, so the difficulties they face remain largely hidden.

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Gender in the Bible

The Bible has a curious double message on sexuality: it emphasizes the distinction between male and female but deemphasizes the differences. The Law of Moses outlawed a man wearing female clothing and vice versa (Deut 22:5). Since both sexes wore long robes, this wasn’t for modesty reasons but to ensure that everyone knew your gender. However, the Israelites did not treat women as differently as we might expect. Women could work outside the home, for example, as a shepherd – like the women that Jacob and Moses married (Gen 29:9; Exod 2:16). They could also work on someone’s farm or buy and sell things in a market (Ruth 2:8; Prov 31:16, 24). And although there were no female priests, the priests’ wives ate temple food that was forbidden to nonpriests (Lev 22:13), so God himself didn’t perceive them as less holy.

       Genesis honors Eve very highly. In saying that Eve was made from Adam himself, Genesis emphasizes similarity rather than differences (Gen 2:21). The King James translation calls Eve a “help meet for him” (Gen 2:20). In older English, “meet” meant “fitting” or “suitable,” but in modern English this makes her seem like a domestic servant. However, the words “meet for him” translate the Hebrew word kenegdo – a combined word meaning “like + beside + him” – that is, she is very similar to Adam and on a par with (“beside”) him. The surprise lies in the word “help” (Hebrew ezer) because the Bible always uses this word for someone who is more powerful – it is often used to refer to a warrior who defends you, and usually it used for God himself who helps you.2 So in contrast to what we might assume, Eve was more like Lara Croft than a Stepford wife!

The struggle to fit in

But sexual identity isn’t always straightforward. Not everyone is born a square-jawed, strong man or a full-lipped, curvy woman like those populating the beaches of Baywatch. Among all of us ordinary people are a surprising number whose gender is somewhere between male and female. The most serious and commonest chromosome defect is Klinefelter’s syndrome, where instead of having male XY chromosomes or female XX, a person has XXY. Hormonal problems such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) result in male development in a fetus that has female chromosomes. There are about a dozen other different causes for a bewildering array of variations or mixtures of male and female features.3

       It is very difficult for those who have these intersex syndromes to fit into a society where everyone is either male or female. It is arguably harder for those who have perfectly normal chromosomes but nevertheless have poorly or differently developed genitals or behaviors because they have nothing to point to as the cause – except that they are different. These situations often arise from a mixture of hormones in the womb between the eighth and twenty-fourth weeks of gestation, shortly before birth, or at puberty – the three critical stages of sexual development. These hormones can even come from outside the person – from the environment or the mother. Studies with rats have found that even short bursts of such hormones during critical stages of pregnancy can result in normal genitals but transgender behavior. In humans, 30 percent of female babies who experienced high testosterone due to CAH grow up with homosexual inclinations.4

       One biblical principle is that God loves us as we are. The demands of society may force us to conform in all kinds of ways – in clothing, manners, food, and sexual stereotypes – but we shouldn’t blame God for this. Paul is sometimes regarded as being heavy-handed about conformity – for example, he didn’t want Christians to unnecessarily offend anyone by eating the wrong food or wearing the wrong headwear (1 Cor 8:9-13; 11:13-16). In spite of this, when it came to conforming to expectations of sexuality, he recognized that people have different experiences of sexual desire. Paul himself preferred singleness and encouraged it, but he also accepted that marriage was good, and in fact preferable for those who might otherwise fall into sexual immorality (1 Cor 7:7-9). Paul summarizes the Christian attitude to these differences concerning sexual desire with the principle: “Let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” (1 Cor 7:17 ESV).

Contrary to one’s “nature”

Paul also applies this principle when presenting some very forceful teaching against homosexual behavior. Instead of presenting a general criticism, he specifically pointed at those who changed to this from their former sexuality. He articulates this emphatically in Romans 1: “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie. … Their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women” (Rom 1:25-27, italics added). The words “exchanged” and “abandoned” imply that their original nature and lifestyle was heterosexual, but they deliberately took up homosexual behavior. He isn’t referring to those who find that they can’t respond to the opposite sex – that is, those who were born that way. Instead, he specifically refers to those who have “abandoned natural relations with women” – that is, they already had heterosexual relationships that were “normal” to them and then chose to pursue homosexual relationships.

       Roman society was full of these practices that Paul was condemning, and he was pointing the finger at some very powerful people. Emperor Tiberius trained boys to arouse him underwater while he swam, and Nero married a male slave while dressed as a bride, consummating it publicly. There are similar records of homoerotic behavior by almost every early emperor, and such hedonistic homosexuality was rampant in Roman society. They were deliberately trying something different simply to stimulate their jaded sexual appetites, and Paul was rightly outraged by this kind of practice, which was contrary to nature – that is, to the way they were born.

       Acting contrary to nature was at the heart of Paul’s condemnation: “their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way, the men also abandoned natural relations with women” (Rom 1:26-27). The concept of “nature” (phusis) can refer to “natural law” (as at Rom 2:14), “created nature” (as at Rom 11:24), or “society norms” (as at 1 Cor 11:14). In Romans 1, we can rule out the last meaning because Paul would not tell us to conform with the norms of the very society that he was criticizing. So he must mean one or both of the first two.

       If he means “natural law,” then Paul is referring to something that everyone knows is wrong, because the law is written into nature itself. That is, he is saying that even Gentiles know this behavior is wrong, just like everyone knows that murder and theft are wrong. If he means “created nature,” then Paul is referring to something that can be inferred from the nature of creation itself. That is, he is saying “you shouldn’t act in a way that contradicts the way you were created.” I think it is likely he means both, because this puts him in line with the principle of 1 Corinthians 7:17 that everyone should “lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him.” In other words, by natural law everyone knows that they should not change the nature that God has given them.

The way God made us

God loves us – whatever nature we have been born with. Those born with any of the varieties of intersex states can take comfort that the Bible doesn’t demand we conform to society, but it asks us to accept the way that God has made us. Those with gender dysphoria may have been brought up as the “wrong” gender, because gender identity and body shape may misalign with each other while being formed in the womb. This can cause a lot of heartache and overt or silent criticism, but God loves us as we are – not as others think of us.

       Paul specifically criticized those who change their sexuality – but doesn’t criticize those who are rejected by society for being who they already are. The reason he gives for his criticism is that those who change their nature are rejecting the nature that God their creator gave them. By giving this as the reason, he isn’t just being silent about those who are born that way – he is explaining why they are excluded from his criticism.

       A few societies easily accept those who have varying degrees of intersex states. In India, hijras (who dress as women but have male features) are paid to bless marriages and births. In 2013, India even introduced an intersex gender birth certificate.5 Native North American berdaches dressed as men for warfare and as women at other times, and in several tribes were considered to be powerful healers.6 Even in Bible times, Assyrian culture had nonmale men known as kulu’u who were cultic actors.7

       Western societies have only recently woken up to the complexities of human sexuality, and the Bible is usually blamed for this late willingness to engage with the issue. It is true that the Bible makes clear distinctions between male and female, especially with regard to dress, and those who were natural eunuchs or had other sexual ambiguities weren’t allowed in the Temple (a rabbinic rule based on Deut 23:1). But when Jesus came, he showed that this didn’t imply God was rejecting them because he said that some, such as himself, were willing to be like a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom (Matt 19:12).

       The sciences have now taught us more about the true complexity of human nature, and we now recognize the varieties of personalities that God has created. It has been something of a revelation to look back at the Bible with these insights and see that it was not as binary with regard to sexuality as we had thought. It turns out that the Bible is more sympathetic than many societies are. This should come as no surprise, because God made us as we are and loves us all as we are. The challenge for us is to agree with him and to do the same.


• One in two thousand babies are born with uncertainty about their physical gender, caused by hormones or genes.
• Paul teaches that God accepts us as we are, but condemns those who change their sexual behavior to something contrary to the nature they were born with.
• Proposal: God loves us as we are, so we shouldn’t reject those who are different in various ways.

1^ See Intersex Society of North America (
2^ E.g., Ps 115:9-11; see STEP Bible data at
3^ See Wikipedia, “Intersex” (
4^ See Melissa Hines, Mihaela Constantinescu, and Debra Spencer, “Early Androgen Exposure and Human Gender Development,” Biology of Sex Differences 6 (2015) (
5^ See Supreme Court of India report “Writ Petition (Civil) No.400 of 2012” (
6^ See “Berdache,” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains (
7^ See A. R. George, “Part Three: A Commentary on a Ritual of the Month Nisan,” Babylonian Texts from the Folios of Sidney Smith (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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