If you are lucky enough to be training for ministry in the Church of England, in amongst the praying, head scratching and gin tasting, you will experience the dubitable privilege of studying 'sex and gender'. For first years at Cranmer Hall, this has meant two weeks of squeezing into a hot, sweaty lecture room for four hours a day and baffling ourselves with a forest of terminology and complex case studies.
One such session involved a brief Biblical reflection from one of our tutors on gender fluidity: those whose internally experienced gender does not fit into the binary system of 'male' or 'female'.1 This was a thinking-out-loud sort of speculation rather than a sewn up thesis, but I found it sparking some of my own thoughts and so here post a response.
My tutor's speculation went something like this. The Bible doesn't talk explicitly about gender fluidity, but it does talk about another fluid substance – water. Turns out there's rather a lot about water in the Bible. The first thing we learn about water is in Genesis 1, where God divides the waters into waters above and waters below, and then further separates the waters below (on earth) so that dry land may appear – and this is good. The rest of scripture teaches us that floods are bad, and so is drought; but that the Kingdom of God is like a river flowing in a desert (Isaiah 43:19). Thus, my tutor concluded, we may surmise that too much fluidity is bad, but too little is also bad. There has been an appropriate separation between the waters so that fluidity may not overrule all else. From this, we may draw a principle with which to understand gender fluidity: some fluidity exists naturally within humanity, and both too little and too much is destructive.
What 'too much' may be, my tutor didn't specify; but a criticism of postmodern identity construction seemed to imply that contemporary western notions of gender fluid individuals, use of non-gender specific pronouns and titles, etc., constitute a step beyond what is appropriate.
Here is my own (equally speculative) response to this.
It is true that in Genesis, God separates the waters in order to make distinctions between them and create dry land. In scripture, this is referred to as placing a boundary around the sea (Job 38:10-11, Proverbs 8:29, Psalm 104:9, Jeremiah 5:22). And yet we find numerous examples of transgressions of this boundary: sticking with the Biblical landscape, we may note vast internal seas such as the Dead Sea, the Red Sea and (although it is freshwater), the Sea of Galilee.
We find this transgressing of God-ordained boundaries elsewhere in both scripture and nature. In Genesis 1-2, God creates men and women – 'male and female he created them.' This is an obvious biological distinction which we can all testify to as a significant biological category, and yet we also know that there are many people whose biology does not conform to either of these categories (this is to say nothing of the many non-human parts of creation which do not).
Staying with Genesis, we see God ordain the sexual union between man and woman as a sort of familial boundary, marking the separation of offspring from their parents' family unit to a new one. And yet throughout scripture we see numerous examples of righteous men and women who are celibate: Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Anna, Paul and of course, Jesus.
Travelling on through the pentateuch, God gives the law as another boundary for his people Israel. And yet when Jesus comes, we find him redefining its limits (Matt 5) and even transgressing its boundaries (Mark 2:23-28). Again and again, we find the same pattern emerging throughout scripture: a boundary is ordained by God as seemingly normative, and yet we are given numerous examples of holy people and things whose existence is lived in violation of that boundary. What can it mean?
Christian tradition has recognised that the categories mentioned above teach us about the ordering of creation. God orders creation (and human society, through the teaching of the law and the prophets) so that this ordering may teach us something of who God is, and who we are in relation to him. Thus the marriage between a man and a woman has long been understood to be a good not only in itself, but also as a metaphor for the intimate, self-giving relationship between Jesus and his church (Eph 5:31-32).
And yet we are consistently shown through both the revelations of scripture and nature that these categories are not ontological, not eternal – they are not so rigid as to act as a straitjacket. Thus we also have celibates, internal seas and intersex people, to name but a few examples. For as Jesus replied to his critics, 'The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,' (Mark 2:27). These categories and boundaries are ordered to teach us about God, not to act as rigid and arbitrary rules.
Galatians 3:28, in which Paul states that in Christ 'there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male and female', is not intended to deny this ordering, but to explain that our true ontological identity is not found in the categories of gender, ethnicity, legal status or relation to the Law, but in Christ. Those categories don't cease to exist, but they are not of ontological significance: they serve a purpose within the ordering of creation, but not eternally.
Thus we find that the law, the seas and marriage all pass away when Jesus returns (Matt 5:18, Rev 21:1, Matt 22:30). While the ordering of creation is there as a tool to teach us about God and our relationship to him, perhaps the many examples of boundary-blurring which we find in creation and scripture are there to teach us another lesson: that these boundaries are not eternal, nor ontological. They are not the true markers of who we are, because the true marker, the only marker which is eternal and which matters, is Christ. Are we in Christ? Then the things of this world, our ethnicity, our gender, our marital status, categories which matter deeply to us and form our identity and society in a necessary and valuable way, nevertheless pale into insignificance. As Christians, we live in the tension of the now and not yet, inhabiting our current identities but looking to the day when this current created order concedes to a new order – one in which each creature relates to each other creature not as Jew, Greek, slave, free, married, single, male or female, but through their common identity in Christ.
Gender fluidity is simply one more example of a God-given gift, one of his many easter eggs, to teach us about who God is and who we are. Just as the union between man and woman teaches us of the forthcoming union between Christ and his bride, so gender-fluid people teach us of the transience of this current world, and the forthcoming new creation.
1This might be understood, for those who can't quite get their head around it, as being 'internally intersex': just as there are those whose body does not fit 'male' or 'female' because they have a combination of features in genitalia, or chromosomes, etc., there are those whose internal experience of gender (i.e. what you feel like) is neither male nor female but somewhere between the two.