Instead of rejecting gender essentialism to embrace an ideology that leads to the overthrow of the very foundations of nature in God’s good design, we should hold fast to everything that is good, true, and beautiful, which includes complementary humanity created male and female in God’s image for his glory.
Some errors are explicit and easy to spot, while others are not stated in so many words and only manifest by way of implication. Christa McKirland’s chapter falls squarely in the first category. Historically, egalitarians have attempted to draw a bright line between themselves and those who would advocate for LGBTQ identities. Christa McKirland’s essay, however, is the first I’ve seen that not only rejects gender essentialism but also embraces transgenderism. And that is what, in the end, sets this chapter apart from previous editions of Discovering Biblical Equality.
The thesis of Christa McKirland’s chapter, “Image of God and Divine Presence: A Critique of Gender Essentialism,” is nearly summed up in its title. McKirland is critical of gender essentialism, which she defines as the idea that “men and women are essentially different on the basis of being a man or a woman” (283). Instead of gender essentialism, McKirland proposes that human nature is defined quite apart from masculinity or femininity, and instead by the image of God, which includes having special status in being like God, special function through exercising dominion, and special access to and representation of God’s presence — all of which are equally shared between men and women.
McKirland is up front about the payoff of rejecting gender essentialism: “the Scriptures do not make maleness and femaleness central to being human, nor can particular understandings of masculinity and femininity be rigidly prescribed, since these are culturally conditioned” (286). If one wonders what McKirland means by critiquing “gender essentialism,” whether she means masculinity/femininity or maleness/femaleness, one has already identified a central problem with her proposal. At times, she seems to be rejecting cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity, while in the end she seems to reject as normative maleness and femaleness altogether. Importantly, this rejection is not just an entailment of her ideas, but at the very heart of her proposal as she embraces transgenderism in the concluding section of the chapter.
Rejecting Gender Essentialism
McKirland’s chapter is a veritable parade of egalitarian commitments and implications when it comes to gender. There are fundamental questions at the heart of the complementarian-egalitarian debate that McKirland’s proposal, and the broader egalitarian project of which she is a part, is hard-pressed to answer reasonably. What is a woman? What are the differences between men and women? If differences are identifiable, which matter for how we live as men and women? What is the connection between manhood and maleness, womanhood and femaleness? McKirland’s anti-gender essentialism is not only unable to answer these questions in a satisfying way, but she heaps up a pile of error on this unsure foundation at just the point where our culture is most confused today, transgenderism, because of an inability to answer these questions properly.
McKirland does not explicitly define her understanding of “essence” and “accident” in her rejection of gender essentialism. But I do think she assumes the philosophical definition: “essence” refers to a property something must have, while “accident” refers to a property something happens to have but could lack. This is why McKirland spends much of the first part of her chapter attempting to define humanity’s essence apart from maleness and femaleness. If gender is not essential to humanity, what is? For McKirland, a human’s essence is defined by the image of God — a property, importantly for McKirland’s egalitarian project, that is shared by both men and women. Here I should like to register a point of agreement: complementarians also believe that a human person’s essence should be defined in part by the image of God, in which men and women are made equally. The image of God is what sets humanity, both men and women, apart from the rest of material creation. But now a disagreement: the Bible also teaches that humans are psychosomatic units, body and soul, which means embodiment is part of a human person’s essence. Embodiment, for instance, is one aspect of what sets humanity apart from angels. And with embodiment comes a sexual distinction — human bodies are either male or female, and this according to God’s design through the presence or absence of a Y chromosome, which contributes to the formation of primary and secondary sex characteristics.
The dimorphic nature of humanity as man or woman, male or female, is established from the very first chapter of the Bible. But McKirland’s project leads her to downplay differences in Genesis 1 and 2: “The focus of the texts of Genesis 1–2 is on humanity’s unique relationship to God and their function on behalf of God.” While this may be true at face value, this statement leads McKirland to ignore other, obvious features of the text — even important features Paul himself draws on when he speaks to the church about men and women in, for example, 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2.
For instance, McKirland nowhere mentions that the creation mandate in Genesis 1, where she rightfully gets her understanding of dominion, also includes the command to be fruitful and multiply, which requires sexual complementarity. Neither does she mention that Genesis 2 teaches that the man was created first, from the ground, and the woman from his side. Neither does McKirland mention that Genesis 2 says the woman was created by God to be a “helper suitable” for the man. Without evidence, McKirland argues that “while maleness and femaleness do feature in these creation accounts, masculinity and femininity do not” (296). By any definition of masculinity and femininity vis a vis maleness and femaleness, this is simply not true. In the original Hebrew, God’s special creation of man is referred to in Genesis 1:27 as “male” (zakar) and “female” (neqebah) — terms that make literal reference to complementary sexual reproductive organs. Then in Genesis 2, man is referenced not by sex — maleness and femaleness — but by gender — masculinity and femininity. God first makes the man (adam) out of the ground, and then subsequently makes the woman (isha) out of his side and brings her to the man (ish) to be named.