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Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God

By Megan K. DeFranza

–Book Review by Paula Jones


Until 1990, hermaphrodites (an outdated and misleading term) were to me a thing of myth, curious aberrations that were only mentioned in bad jokes, but definitely not a form of human that actually existed––and yes, I was naïve.

Then, after months of excited anticipation, a friend of mine gave birth to her first child, a child of ambiguous sex who possessed both male and female sex organs. The doctors advised the parents to decide as soon as possible whether they wanted to raise the baby as a boy or girl so they could then surgically correct the ‘mistake’ that nature had made.

With their world shaken, they sought the solace of their faith family. For the most part, that faith family was not very comforting. Some were horrified, looking upon their child as less than human. Others urged them to have the doctors ‘make’ the child a boy because God preferred boys––after all, he did demand that men rule over women. (We won’t debate that opinion here.) Another group avoided the family altogether, completely at a loss of what to say (or not to say).

In Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God, Megan K. DeFranza addresses the reality of intersex, delving deeply into the disciplines of science, history, sociology, and theology. Her goal is to open the eyes of the Christian community to the existence, humanity, and oppression of intersexuals. Never attempting to abandon the significance of male/female identities, she writes only to enlarge the tent beyond those two possibilities, asking, “Does Christianity require a two-sex system?”

Intersex is a term used to describe people who do not fit into standard medical descriptions of male or female.” DeFranza educates the reader to at least nine different ways intersex can manifest itself, none of which the average person would be familiar with––not because they are exceedingly rare, but because we are so hesitant to even discuss the subject. It is estimated that a minimum of 1 in every 2000 live births results in an intersex child, which means around 50,000 intersexuals live in the U.S. alone. This means intersex is as common as cystic fibrosis, schizophrenia, or Down syndrome.

Stating that, “Abnormal does not indicate ‘freakishness’ but atypical development,” she compellingly argues that sex difference is not an ontological difference. Even though the overwhelming majority of people fall far to one end or another of a gender continuum, all humans are intricate combinations of male and female characteristics. None of us can claim that we always fall into a neat category.

Beginning with the classical period, DeFranza takes us on a tour de force of developments in western culture’s views of gender. She convincingly demonstrates that our ideas about what constitutes masculinity, and therefore what constitutes the nature of all persons, is a holdover from ancient Rome where women were viewed as lesser creations than males, the ‘one true human form.’ “The power structures of the ancient world were built upon a hierarchical chain of gendered being. Elite men were at the top. Women were at the bottom. Eunuchs, effeminate men, and virile women were somewhere in between.” Raised in this culture, many early theologians thought that men alone were made in the image of God.

Against this background, DeFranza demonstrates that scripture provides ample means for accepting and appreciating individuals who are not compatible with the standard understanding of male or female. Her focus falls on three passages: the eschatological prediction of Isaiah 56:3-7 (where eunuchs are to be included as valuable members of God’s kingdom, judged not by physical characteristics but by their faith and practice), the reassurance of Galatians 3:28 that in heaven there is neither male not female, and Matthew 19:7-12 where Jesus extends gracious and inclusive words about eunuchs. Remarkably, even though Jesus specifically mentions eunuchs who were ‘born this way’ and eunuchs made eunuchs by others, the church of the Middle-Ages chose to think of these eunuchs as ‘spiritual eunuchs’––those who took vows of chastity to serve the church. Thus, “the metaphorical eunuch became the new icon of Christian perfection.” Ironically, those who lived a virginal life were then considered more masculine than those who participated in normal sexual activity because only the manliest of men could chose to forgo sex!

As DeFranza considers what it means to be human, and thus made in the image of God, she assesses the writings of Stanley Grenz and Pope Paul II, believing both overemphasized differences in sex and gender. She refutes the idea that conjugal sexuality is the best (or even the only) metaphor to represent the meaning of the image of God, pointing out several inherent problems with that imagery. Instead, she proposes that the relationship that best explains the image of God are those found in “the wider community of extended family, neighborhood, and ecclesia in order to retain the social imago while delivering it from sexual distortions.” Offering a new way to read the Adam and Eve story, she proposes that they were never meant to be the paradigm for relationships, but the progenitors of human relationships that over time will diverge in a variety of ways. Instead of erasing sex and gender identities, DeFranza reframes identity around the person of Jesus.

Perhaps my favorite passage is an eschatological one in which DeFranza follows a logic proposed by Susannah Cornwall:

            . . .there is no need for us to believe that intersexed bodies will be ‘healed’ or ‘corrected’           at the resurrection, that is, transformed into an ideal male of female body. She insists that    new creation brings about not only the healing of individuals and their bodies, but also the healing of communities to the point that identities of difference that now divide and       impair communal life will no longer be decisive or limiting.

Cornwall continues, saying, “One strategy for overcoming the marginalization of people with intersex/DSD conditions might be one which recognizes that ‘healing’ is not ‘healing from,’ but living comfortably and healthily with oneself as intersex.”

DeFranza’s uncommonly honest discussion is likely to challenge both the progressive and conservative arm of the church. Conservatives may be uncomfortable that she breaks down some of the harmful binaries of gender and sex as she dares to confront a two-sex system that leaves no room for variations in creation. They may also cringe that, in addition to the writings of more orthodox theologians, she also refers to the work of feminist and queer theologians. Finally, they could conceivably accuse DeFranza of intending to undermine a traditional understanding of sexuality when, in reality, she is trying to remedy an imbalance in our awareness. On the other hand, progressives may be unhappy that DeFranza insists that monogamy is God’s desire and hope for humans and that she refuses to subsume all sex and gender differences under the umbrella term LGBT.

Nevertheless, this is a book that should be read no matter how uncomfortable it might make the reader. We have ignored the reality of intersex persons for too long in the church and in society. Plowing through the issues, DeFranza remains committed to biblical authority as she pushes us to include ‘the other.’ And let’s be honest, sometimes we all need to be pushed.