Challenges to Humanity

Explainer: A Christian View of Sex and Gender Terminology

Post Icon

Pronouns are part of the basic fabric of all languages. They are so ingrained in our minds that we often forget the technical structure of these as we grow older, until we are forced to re-learn the rules of grammar or another language. I remember learning Spanish in high school and being taught conjugation and how different words are “masculine” or “feminine.” I really had never given this any thought in English (likely to the dismay of my grade school teachers). It was intuitive that there simply is male and female. It was common sense that there is masculine and feminine. Whether in language or biology, everyone assumed these were givens that we discover rather than words of our own creation.

Not so today. We are encouraged to select our preferred pronouns for our email signatures, our name tags, and even our own driver’s license. How did this happen? Legions of new books and articles are seeking to explain this phenomenon. But suffice to say that since at least the twentieth century there has been an overwhelming urge to separate sex from gender.[1] In fact, until the 1950s and 1960s, gender was a term only used in linguistics to refer to the masculine and feminine forms of words. However, psychologists began to appropriate gender terminology to explain gender dysphoria. Coupled with the growth of feminism and other groups, the terms have undergone significant debate and revision.[2] It is common to trace the impulse for such movements in feminism and other critical theory projects. This is certainly true.

But broader historical and sociological factors also contribute to these beliefs: various enlightenment philosophies of the self, the effects of the World Wars on females’ opportunities to work in traditionally “masculine” roles, and the general impact of industrialization on formerly agrarian societies. Consider the wide-ranging impact of industrialization. Even if modern feminism and critical theory projects had existed and been influential in the year 1200, they would never have made a substantial impact, in part because of the requirements of labor. The division of responsibilities in ages past was all but necessitated by physical characteristics. Females simply could not do the demanding physical labor that a male would do. So, even if they had the imagination to seek a change, such change would be ultimately impossible.

Fine and good. But how are we to understand one another given the warp speed at which terms and meanings are changing? What pastoral counsel can we provide if we do not understand what the culture, or even the children at our local public school are saying? Since nowadays, among contemporary philosophers, there is no accepted definition of sex, gender, or even man and woman, how can we even communicate with one another? And how flexible can we be with the separation of sex from gender as Christians? Is it unorthodox to suggest that sex and gender refer to different things?

In what follows I intend to provide a short guide to both understanding the various options on the table and which ones faithful Christians can consider orthodox. This guide is intended to be a resource for local churches and not a traditional blog post. So, dear reader, continue reading on. The length is necessary as the times are dark and the need is great.

These baseline commitments to the goodness of creation and to binary sexual pairs for the mutual good of men and women necessitate a particular set of beliefs about man and woman.

Summarizing the Contemporary Views on Sex and Gender

Today, apart from many religious segments, it is nearly axiomatic that sex and gender are distinct concepts. In those circles, sex refers to things like sex organs and hormones. If someone has a Y chromosome, they are male.[3] If someone doesn’t, they are female. Members of those circles understand gender to refer to clusters of social characteristics and abilities (e.g., norms, positions, performances, phenomenological features, self-ascriptions, or roles).[4] Gender, therefore, is a cluster of properties or characteristics that include many of the buzzword categories like gender identity (e.g., how I see myself), gender role (e.g., men being the breadwinner in a family, women performing the domestic duties in a family, men sacrificing their lives in combat, women submitting to their husbands, etc.), and even sexual orientation (e.g., who I am attracted to).[5] On the other hand, sex is about our biological nature we are “given” and cannot change. The terminology of transgenderism arises in this discussion as a term designed to explain how one’s gender identity doesn’t match one’s sexual makeup.[6]

Given the changes in our language and shared concepts over the last several decades, there are now at least four broad families of views for understanding sex and gender. Only two of these views, I suggest, are open to faithful orthodox Christians committed to standard Christian sexual ethics and a traditional doctrine of creation. These baseline commitments to the goodness of creation and to binary sexual pairs for the mutual good of men and women necessitate a particular set of beliefs about man and woman. The four “families” of views take gender to refer to:

  1. Gender is nothing but biology (e.g., it is identical to it)
  2. Gender is something beyond biology (e.g., it is relevantly connected but is something more than just biology)
  3. Gender is something completely distinct from biology
  4. Gender (and sex) are complete fictions

What Views of Sex and Gender Can a Christian Tolerate?

The Christian must understand what options on gender are consistent with standard understandings of Christianity. Knowing which models either outright contradict the faith or potentially undermine Christian teaching will aid in guiding families, teaching churches, and serving the health of local communities and ultimately nations. It is easiest to work in reverse order of the four views presented here. I assume for the sake of argument that Christians should affirm at least that God’s creation is real, good, and designed for a suitable purpose. Given the purpose of creation, they should affirm standard Christian sexual ethics: sex is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman, men have responsibilities as fathers, and women have responsibilities as mothers. There is normative content, then, to one’s sex for a Christian ethic. We have certain “oughts” that are based on our biological sex and their “ends” or purposes. As a male I am biologically disposed to be a father and have particular responsibilities annexed to my male body. Females are biologically disposed to be mothers. So, as a father I do not have the responsibility to breastfeed my child. That is not something that is expected of me because of my biological sex. And there are no moral grounds for attempting non-natural surgical procedures to create this possibility. Each of these factors will be expanded on in the following evaluation.

It is rather obvious (and accurate!) to most Christians that view #4 (not only gender but also sex is a fiction) is irreconcilable with Christian doctrine. To deny even the category of sex is to reject a significant portion of Scripture, including the creation account and even Jesus’s own teaching on sexuality. Genesis 1-3 is emphatic that God created us as male and female. The pairing of male and female is throughout all of creation and not merely reserved for humans. In no way does Scripture suggest these distinctions are merely fictional or that they are inherently oppressive. God even makes woman out of man’s side, which reminds us of the equal status each has before one another. To make sex and gender fictions, therefore, denies that God’s creation is both real and good—which ultimately entails there is no purpose behind the way our bodies are created.

To make sex and gender fictions, therefore, denies that God’s creation is both real and good—which ultimately entails there is no purpose behind the way our bodies are created.

View #3 (sex is wholly distinct from gender) is also inconsistent with standard Christian teaching. It denies in a significant sense that gender is real and that our sexed bodies have a purpose. For example, if man and woman are no longer identified by their sexual configuration, how are we to identify them? If a baby is born and the doctor cannot merely look at their genitalia to determine if they are male or female, what tells us? More pressing for most philosophers working in the area of gender, if woman is open-ended then what of feminism?[7] Linda Alcoff summarizes the issue well:

  • If gender identity is simply a social construct, the need and even the possibility of a feminist politics becomes immediately problematic. What can we demand in the name of women if “women” do not exist and demands in their name simply reinforce the myth that they do? How can we speak out against sexism as detrimental to the interests of women if the category is a fiction? How can we demand legal abortions, adequate childcare, or wages based on comparable worth without invoking the concept of ‘women’?[8]

Obviously, I take Alcoff to be quite wrong—disastrously so—in her desire to defend various things such as abortions. But her worry here is one we should take notice of. As our society has morphed in its understanding of sex and gender, it has effectively sawn off the branch from which it stood. And people are slowly beginning to notice. If I can be a woman merely because I self-identify as one, this appears to be rather bad news for biological women. What is it then that ultimately makes a woman a woman?

The search for a unifying property that could give sense to what counts as a woman (and by extension a man) is one of the most important questions because it requires us to decide what gender really is. At least four possible unifying properties can help us define what it means to be a man or woman:

  1. One could rely on a traditional framework and argue that biological sex is determinative of what counts as a woman. If someone is a female, then they are a woman. If not, they aren’t a woman. Simple as that.
  2. One could say that phenomenological features are what it means to be a woman. So, what it feels like to be a man or woman—like having menstrual cramps as a woman is what gender amounts to.
  3. One could say that roles or performances are what determines gender. If I primarily cook and clean the home, caring for the children, then I am a woman.
  4. One could say that self-attribution is all that is required to be a certain gender. So, if I call myself a man then I am one.[9]
On a Christian account of sex and gender, our gendered expectations are drawn from our biology.

But only the first framework is available for the Christian. Therefore, these sorts of categorization puzzles are quite illuminating for Christians. They not only show the lack of resources to make sense of our world from those who claim such views but also highlight the chasm between Christian accounts of sex and gender and contemporary ones.
The final two models, I suggest, are both open to faithful Christians who value sound doctrine. For view #2 where gender is partially distinct from sex, sex must be necessary and sufficient for one’s gender if it is to be a truly Christian view. This means that no matter the social roles or features experienced or exhibited, a person can only be one gender, determined by biological sex. On a Christian account of sex and gender, our gendered expectations are drawn from our biology. And so, while we may perform these roles to a greater or lesser degree, we will always be a man or woman because of our biology.


The contemporary understandings of sex and gender are a morass. There are no agreed-upon definitions. All that is truly shared is a commitment to opposing injustice and oppression. And yet, these categories are impossible to apply apart from a consistent ontology of sex and gender. Without a way to explain the reality of these terms in cold hard scientific facts, there is no real basis for justice and our purposes as male or female will invariably be frustrated and confused. Therefore, I have attempted to categorize four of the main views on gender to help orient us to the landscape of views. This should allow pastors, parents, and others to understand the language and framework being used by others. It should give us a greater ability to communicate a truer and better vision of the true, good, and beautiful. From these I have sought to evaluate each model as to its consistency with Christian doctrine. I conclude that only the first two models that see gender as identical to sex or partially identical and necessarily linked, as compatible with Christian teaching.

Never Miss an Episode, Article, or Study!

Sign up for the CFC Newsletter now

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.


[1] Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 184.

[2] Mari Mikkola, The Wrong of Injustice: Dehumanization and Its Role in Feminist Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 22; Tomas Bogardus, “Evaluating Arguments for the Sex/Gender Distinction,” Philosophia 48, no. 3 (July 2020): 874,

[3] Denny Burk, What Is the Meaning of Sex? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 180–82.

[4] Sally Anne Haslanger, Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 42–43.

[5] Hilary M. Lips, Gender: The Basics, Second Edition (New York: Routledge, 2019), 3.

[6] Lips, Gender, 17.

[7] Mikkola, The Wrong of Injustice, 42.

[8] Linda Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 143.

[9] Mikkola, The Wrong of Injustice, 66.

  • Challenges to Humanity
  • Christ and Culture
  • current events
  • homosexuality
  • theological anthropology
Jordan Steffaniak

Research Fellow

Jordan L. Steffaniak (ThM, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a PhD student in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham, UK. He is married with two sons. He is co-founder of the London Lyceum, a weekly podcast and online center for analytic, baptist, and confessional theology. He has published in academic journals such as Journal of Reformed Theology, TheoLogica, The Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies, and Jonathan Edwards Studies. He works full-time in the finance industry, constantly pursuing his curiosity for all things.

More to Explore

Never miss an episode, article, or study.

Sign up for the Christ and Culture newsletter now!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.