Pastoral Letter Extended 4: What are we?

This is the fourth of a series of posts expanding on my Pastoral Letter post based on my sermon from June 28th.

Many of the questions that are polarizing our culture today are anchored in the old question of what it means to be human. As Christians, it’s important that we operate from a Biblically sound starting place before we delve into the milieu of opinions being promoted in our society.

4. Christians hold a radically different view of human beings, and we must take this more seriously.

How do we know what we are? Do we determine it? Discover it? Create it? Whatever we are, can we change it if we want to?

Are we what we decide to be?

Our culture largely assumes an instrumental view of human nature, meaning we define ourselves by what we choose to do and by what we call ourselves. We define ourselves by our work, hobbies, personalities, nationalities, ambitions, socioeconomic status, gender, and preferences.

Christianity teaches a teleological view, which means that we are defined by what we are for, by our purpose and design. We are free to discover and live out our nature, but not free to determine it. I am defined by what God tells me I am, not by the desires I experience. My various and disordered desires must be either embraced and nurtured or crucified on the basis on their moral standing, not on the basis of the intensity of my orientation toward them. And it is important for us to understand that crucifying and repressing are not the same thing.

On one end, we have self-definition guided by personal experience. On the other, we have definition from an external source and the interpretation of personal experience in light of God’s self-revelation. Christianity assumes the second. In other words, rather than ascribing meaning and identity to ourselves on the basis of our experiences, we believe that our meaning and identity are founded in the intention and design of our Creator. We were created in his image for the purpose of enjoying him and being enjoyed by him in relationship. Yet while we were created according to a sublime design, we are broken and crippled by our sinful condition.

It may seem like an irrelevant philosophical conflict, but this distinction has enormous implications for the ways we approach today’s most practical and immediate concerns about who and what we are, what we expect from each other as humans, and how “progress” can be achieved.

Specific to questions of sexual orientation and gender identify, we as Christians must wrestle honestly and humbly with the revealed truth in the Bible in the face of a culture operating on vastly different assumptions about who defines “human” identity. If we don’t know where we stand on the question of who or what ultimately defines us as humans, we will have a very hard time navigating more particular questions like gender and sexuality.

Gender matters.

In Genesis 3, the third page of the Bible, God starts telling the story of redemption. Before that, he readies us for the story with an introduction to the characters and the setting. In those first two chapters, God provides us with two accounts of the creation of the world. The first account chronicles the creation of everything in the physical world, including humans as male and female. He commissions them to be fruitful and multiply, and to subdue the earth and rule over it (lead it to flourish). In chapter one, we already have the foundation of a fixed purpose for humanity to be lived out in a duality of genders which are both made in the image of God. It doesn’t say much about the relation of those two genders to each other, however.

In chapter two, the retelling is done with a different, more narrative emphasis, crafted to drive home a very specific point. In it, God sits Adam down and parades in front of him every other animal on the earth and in the sky, telling Adam to name all of them. You can imagine that that’s a little emotionally exhausting. I only had to name four kids, and that just about severed my marriage. When he gets done, it tells us, “But for Adam, no suitable helper was found” (Gen. 2:20b, NIV).

The point of the story is this: Adam named all the creatures of the earth. He sees all of them. He understands all of them.

And then God says to him, “How do you feel?”
And Adam looks at God and says, “I feel lonely. I feel like there’s nobody like me. No real companion.”
And God says, “Exactly.”

So God puts Adam to sleep and he takes a part out of him and makes a woman. In the bit that follows, we see the first time in the Bible when a human exclaims something. When he wakes and sees the woman, he says, “At last!”
At last what? He hasn’t been alive that long! But he named all these creatures, and at last there is a different sort of creature: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man” (Gen. 2:23).

And immediately after that, it says, “That is why…” In other words, that story was supposed to tell us something that is a reason for what’s about to follow. “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).

In Ephesians 5, Paul describes the complimentary nature of men and women in marriage and how it produces godliness in both of them and mirrors the relationship of Christ and the Church. After that description, he says “for this reason, a man shall…” Paul believes that Genesis 2:1-18 and Ephesians 5:21-30 say exactly the same thing about the complementary nature of both genders in marriage.

These chapters lay the foundation for the entire story of God and humanity throughout the Bible and into our present day, and 50% of this section is dedicated to the duality and complementarian nature of gender.

Our culture promotes the idea that gender is ancillary – it is secondary to the degree that it is almost viewed as inconsequential, and we therefore give little consideration to the suggestion that it is not self-defined. Primary to a biblical view of humanity, though, is our essential engenderdness.

Identity confusion is traumatic.

Difficulties with gender identity are so deeply psychologically traumatic because gender is such a fundamental element in who we are. That’s also why Christians should be enormously sympathetic toward people who experience same-sex attraction or disordering of gender identity. Because we believe in gender, we can turn to people struggling with sexual or gender orientation and say, “I get how painful that must be.”

If a guy breaks up with his girlfriend after 2 days, you don’t weep for him. If he loses his wife after 60 years, you do, because she was everything to him, but the girlfriend was totally nonessential to the other guy. For the widower, his wife was so deeply woven into his personhood, that it’s as if he’s missing a vital piece of himself. In the same way, we should understand, better than anyone who disregards the validity of gender, that the loss of rootedness in gender is an immensely painful reality. We don’t weep in empathy when someone lacks something that was never important to begin with, but Christians ought to be the first ones to grieve with men and women who lack that which is so foundational to who they are.

Written with contributions by Hannah


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