The New Testament unfolds a theology of the body that places the human body in the context of worship and how we can best serve and please God.
Larry L. Lichtenwalter
In April 2017, the members of the General Conference of Seventh‑day Adventist Executive Committee voted to accept a “Statement on Transgenderism.”1 As reported in the Adventist Review Online, the 1,400-word “document acknowledges limited knowledge, seeks biblical guidance and calls to love transgender people.” The statement first defines the key terms commonly used when referring to the topic. It then reviews biblical principles relating to sexuality and the ensuing questions raised by transgenderism. It includes pastoral advice for church leaders and members relating to transgender people, whether they be visitors or church members. The Adventist Review noted that the biblical principles section was based on the belief that “Scripture provides principles for guidance and counsel to transgender people and the Church, transcending human conventions and culture.”2
Reactions reported from the floor as well as published responses underscore the controversial and personal nature of the subject. When we talk about transgenderism, we are talking about people. When a face—a person—is attached to the word transgender, it abruptly becomes something very personal, undeniably real. The intensely personal realities of human internal crisis are highlighted in the rise of transgender issues to social and medical prominence in our changing culture. It can be seen in both professional and popular discussion. The personal quest for wholeness has no easy answers.
Statements are limited, and well‑crafted words can unwittingly define. How we name something (or define it) determines how we perceive it and relate to it. How we name or define something can determine how we relate to the person whom we so perceive or describe. This can become very complicated in relation to balancing the experience and dignity of transgender people as persons while at the same time discussing the multiple physical, genetic, emotional, and psychosocial aspects of their experience and the choices before them. This is true as well in terms of how transgenderism itself might be viewed and approached philosophically.
The Adventist community has every right to reference its discussion of transgenderism from the perspective of Scripture. But the question remains, How does it do so in relation to compelling insights from the body of medical science—especially when the information, discussion, and beliefs about gender are rapidly shifting? How does it do so compassionately in relation to the oft-pained existential journey of individual transgender people? How do we understand and balance the intersect between the biblical ideal, the reality of the Fall, the body of medical and genome research, the transgender person’s unique experience and longings, and the redeeming grace, purpose, and power of God? How do we understand the tensions which these varied perspectives create in a way that orients us toward God together with the principles and values of His Word; and at the same time avoid a secular paradigm or judgmental attitude? How do we maintain a biblically informed worldview that includes both God’s ideal and grace on the one hand, and our fallen human experience on the other?
This article offers reflections on select New Testament passages with the hope of deepening understanding of relevant biblical principles and values. Its purpose is to enlarge on the terse explanations reflected in the biblical references cited in the Church’s “Statement on Transgenderism.”
Engaging New Testament Perspectives
The fact is, “neither gender nor personal sexual identity as we now understand them is a major concern of the biblical world, and thus we cannot demand Scripture to address such issues directly.”3 For sure, there are relevant principles and values that reflect authentic human realities of being and action with regard to sexuality and identity. They largely “go‑without‑saying,” however. In other words, they are assumed, indirect, tacit—not really at issue in the discussion. The varied nature of New Testament literature—its form and content, subtle allusions and rhetoric, narrative and commentary, appeal and warning—challenge understanding of its real meanings regarding this human phenomenon. Yet it opens for the attentive reader windows into multifaceted realities of human nature and being.
Whether these tacit insights and occasioned positions would be enough—whether the New Testament provides precise answers—will depend on a consistent hermeneutic.
Addressing some of these questions will require relevant New Testament passages from the viewpoint of the human being in relation to his or her identity and body (anatomy) in its sexual dimensions. Some of these passages may not appear at first to relate materially to transgender issues. Most, if not all the biblical insights and values gleaned will be indirect, tacit. Nevertheless, a coherent New Testament anthropology and implications do emerge—offering insights that can guide in the discussion of transgender issues and in relating to transgender people. New Testament Scripture not only unfolds a wholistic ontological anthropology, but that its anthropology also enables relevant engagement with the varied aspects of transgender discussion—especially the oft-presumed body/mind divide and why the internal crisis exists.
It must be remembered, “All our experience of sexual life is conditioned by the fall.”4 As a result of the Fall, “the sexuality which we know from human experience does in fact bear witness to a vast rent which runs right through human nature,” creating “a shame which cannot be overcome, and a longing which cannot be satisfied.”5 This biblical understanding of the human predicament and its impact on human sexuality finds contemporary expression in the kind of deep emotional distress evidenced in transgender people who honestly, yet painfully, grapple with their personal gender identity—trying to find or be their true self. Unwittingly, the body of medical science and genome data yield tacit corroboration of the Fall in relation to human sexuality.
From such a context of human personal struggle on some of the deepest intimate and psychological levels, there is need to remember, too, that the values and perspectives found in Scripture regarding human being, gender, and sexuality, reflect divine compassion and redemptive grace toward restoring the wholeness every transgender seeks. The messiness of the human condition precludes total restoration short of the final consummation when God makes all things new (Rev. 21:4, 5; 1 Cor. 15:42–44). This in itself can help orient transgender people as they make concrete choices regarding their individual experience and options toward finding wholeness. The larger biblical narrative of Creation, the Fall, redemption, and final consummation provides an orienting backdrop both by way of understanding the issues and encouraging compassionate response and support of those facing difficult situations.
Existential Alienation of Self and Body
To provide an ideological/theological foundation for transgenderism, some contemporary theorists have turned to concepts that reflect the Neopagan worldview of the ancient Near East. Significant influence of pagan spirituality on modern perceptions of the self and gender are observable. These include old Gnostic ideas of genderless spirituality, which have been revamped and applied. So also the age‑old platonic dualism now unfolds in a new arena of gender and identity. Other theorists reinterpret classical Christian theology within these conceptual paradigms.
Philosophically, the distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity severs gender identity from biological or anatomical sex. This not‑so‑subtle alienation of one’s own body (the physical self) from his or her own person (the internal self—psychological, emotional, spiritual, moral) reflects secular platonic and evolutionary psychology views about the human being. It creates an existential alienation, which effectively pits gender (psychological identity and desire) against biology (physical identity and anatomy). It splits human sexuality from essential selfhood and ultimately relegates gender to social construct or peer-related “horizontal identity.”6 Andrew Solomon suggests that horizontal identities reflect recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences, or values and preferences that one does not share with his or her progenitors, while “vertical identities” are more “normal”—gender, race, language, family, cultural norms, etc.7
Physical appearance, anatomy, chromosomes, or masculine/feminine feelings, behaviors, and spiritual/ moral qualities no longer define gender or one’s self. Personhood and gender ultimately become synonymous with identity and one’s existential self‑designation—internally, externally, personally, and culturally. Coinciding with this gender/body fragmentation is an increased phenomenon of people experiencing “gender dissonance” and desiring gender change, something contemporary culture at large applauds and facilitates. There is need of a clearer, more objective anthropology.
These interpretive paradigms beg the question of what the real or perceived anthropology of transgender really might be at its core, and what a biblically informed anthropology might offer as a constructive, normative point of reference. Transgender persons themselves may or may not reflect these perspectives in their own journey. Nevertheless, these interpretive paradigms are an influential part of the worldview in which a transgender person’s journey unfolds. No doubt personhood, the body, sex, and gender sexuality are independent facets of human being, which can be examined and understood separately. However, they are intertwined variables that are not so easily separated. Once person-hood and gender are separated from the body, no one can agree how to define either.
In keeping with Old Testament Scripture, the New Testament unfolds a worldview that differs profoundly from the thought world of the Ancient Near East. It assumes human beings as an indivisible unity of body and breath of life. Its five major translated terms each have reference to the human being as a whole person, not just a part.8 Wholeness of being is a given—it goes without saying. Human being comprises a multidimensional unity. No part of the human self exists by itself or for itself. The whole person is under the sovereignty of the Creator and Redeemer God. The inner, the very nature, of the human being demands the body.
New Testament anthropology thus excludes the Greek dualism of body and soul and any notion of an immortal soul as one’s inner life is “imprisoned” in the body awaiting liberating death. In the New Testament, death is an enemy, not a great liberator (1 Cor. 15:26). Furthermore, the body is not evil, but rather “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (6:19).9
As cardinal doctrines of New Testament faith, the incarnation of Jesus and the resurrection “give significance to the body and in turn to the belief in the wholeness of man. The incarnation of Jesus Christ gives a forceful significance to the indivisibility of man. If some part of man had not needed redemption, or if man was not a ‘whole,’ God would not have needed to be incarnated. The resurrection of Christ testifies to the same.”10
The wholistic anthropology of the New Testament (and the Bible as a whole) offers a realistic understanding of these painful realities. Unfortunately, Adventist understanding of biblical anthropology has largely focused too narrowly on matters of death, the soul, resurrection, spiritualism, and hell, and has not yet explored as deeply the implications of their “wholistic anthropology” with regard to inner life and being. Yet the very argument of Scripture’s wholistic anthropology opens the door to inform the intense internal crisis which transgender people experience. Scripture is not naïve. Its principles encompass life’s spectrum even as the human race deteriorates more toward the endtime and at the same time understands more of what human beings are comprised of and what is happening deep inside them.
In contrast to Ancient Near East, Neopagan, and neo‑Gnostic perceptions of human sexuality, the New Testament assumes sexual polarity as an essential constituent of humans. So also, that sexual complementarity was the Creator’s intention. This sexual differentiation and complementarity of the sexes is indicated by Jesus and Paul.
Sexual polarity is evidenced in the unequivocal distinction of “male and female” and “male or female”: “And He answered and said to them, ‘Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,’” (Matt. 19:4); “But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female’” (Mark 10:6); “There is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). The words, in the original language, are unambiguous: male and female. They are used of sexual differentiation and unity in human couples. For Genesis 1:27, the LXX translates the Hebrew of the creation of male and female in the image of God with the phrase “male and female.”11
The male/female differentiation Jesus referred to is no mere social construct. Rather, it is rooted in His Father’s creation intent, in which “male” and “female” have essential physical, mental, emotional, moral, spiritual, and social characteristics in relation to realities of human nature created in the image of God.
Jesus affirmed that God’s design before sin entered the world was the creation of two distinct and complementary sexes—male and female (Matt. 19:4)—which designate a fundamental distinction that the Creator has embedded in the very biology of the human race (Gen. 1:27, LXX). Gender—male and female—is linked to corresponding anatomy. The anatomic characteristics/ differentiation of both male and female are nuanced etymologically in both Hebrew and Greek terms respectively. Within the biblical worldview, there is no discussion of gender apart from anatomy.
Furthermore, and in keeping with Genesis, Jesus’ reference to the Creation narrative suggests that there is an ontological gender‑based sexual nature of male and female. Human physical sex distinctions together with gender converge in a full view of personhood reflecting God’s image (Gen. 1:26–28). New Testament Scripture thus maintains a high view of a distinct and observable human male/female identity and sexuality as intended. This male/female differential essentially upholds the entire human person rather than merely locating people’s identity in their sexual organs or functions. One cannot separate the two—body or being, whether male or female. This would affirm how gender serves as the basic identity foundation for all humankind.
Gender is among the first elements of self‑knowledge. Together with race and family, it is one of the three major factors of individual, personal identification. Nevertheless, gender “stands as the most important factor for personal identity.”12 It governs social, ethical, and spiritual behavior patterns. This knowledge encompasses an internal sense of self, and, often, a preference for external behaviors in keeping with one’s inner orienting gender identity. This is why a gender identity crisis is the most severe form of identity crisis known to humankind. This existential divide was never meant to be.
Paul’s distinction of “male nor female” maintained the clarity of the foregoing biblical creation gender realities of “male and female” while at the same time focuses on the essential new and transcending identity one finds in Jesus Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Rather, he affirmed both males and females in both their worth and in their personhood (as per Genesis 1:26 to 28). People’s gender matters. Yet human beings are not merely sexual beings (as per Galatians 3:23 to 29).
Later traditions under the influence of Gnosticism have been read into Paul’s statement that in Christ there is “neither male nor female.” During the second century, the “neither male nor female” formula of Galatians 3:28 was picked up in a number of Gnostic documents and became a major feature in the teaching of this heretical movement. The ideal for the Gnostic was to become sexless. It posited a radical refusal of sexual differentiation and a complete confusion of sexual identity in God’s intended role. The “neither male nor female” formula became a call for “eliminating gender distinctions and the unique aspects of masculine and feminine personhood derived from them.”13 Not only was the elimination of sexuality a prerequisite for salvation, but what circumcision was for the Judaizers of Galatia, gender reversal became for the Gnostic heretics. “For the Gnostics, creation and the material world were inherently evil. Since sexuality was an obvious carrier of this fallenness, it had to be reversed or neutralized in order to achieve release from the constricting ‘prison house of matter.’”14
But Paul did not abolish sexual differences, as is proposed in Gnostic writings. Nor did he allow for an undifferentiated unity, androgynous Adam, or androgynous mystical ideal.
While one’s essential self‑identity is radically altered when one comes to Jesus Christ, this new identity does not negate or essentially alter either race or gender. Gender, race, and family are three immutable birth‑ related personal identity factors. One cannot choose, change, or alter his or her gender, race, or biological family. One can choose Jesus Christ, however, and in doing so receive a new identity into which other realities of their identity (race and gender) find new wholeness. “In the new creation, men remain men, and women remain women. The categorization of the community by race, social status, and gender, leading to patriarchal hierarchies, no longer exists. The community now receives its constitutive identity from Christ.”15
Paul thus affirmed both males and females in their worth and personhood. His use of the words translated to designate male and female distinction occurs only here in the context of gospel implications and then again in Romans 1:26, 27 in a creation order context. Elsewhere Paul used generic terms of man and woman for cultural/ ethical/role-related issues.
Reversing, Circumventing, or Aiding Nature
According to Romans 1, reversing, circumventing, or aiding nature in matters of sexuality is like trying to put together discordant entities. Paul linked the reversal of the created order in worship with the reversal of the created order in sexuality (Rom. 1:21–23, 25). The context for Romans 1:21 to 32 is universal in nature. According to Paul, the existential roots of homosexuality are in the turning of the face from God. It is unnatural within God’s creation. It is significant that Paul here again uses the creation order distinction of “male” and “female” as opposed to generic terms for man and woman. In doing so, he maintained the clear creation gender realities of “male and female” as found in the Genesis narrative and the teachings of Jesus (Gen. 1:26, 27; Matt. 19:4).
A key concept Paul that used is “exchange”: They exchanged the glory of the immortal God (Rom. 1:23); they exchanged the truth about God (vs. 25); they exchanged natural intercourse (vs. 26). Men and women exchange the natural for the unnatural. Exchanging God for idols entailed a denial of God’s true nature. Trading natural intercourse for unnatural male/male or female/ female intercourse entailed a fundamental denial of one’s true nature and self. This in no way suggests, however, that Paul’s focus is merely idolatry rather than human sexuality—and homosexuality in particular. Paul’s “worldly knowledge” must not be understood in terms of the confusion of human sexuality within his contemporary cultural context, which would include both abusive relationships of power or money and examples of “genuine love” between members of the same sex.16 It would include, also, notions of any androgynous quest—either physically or spiritually. Paul was well aware of what he was talking about. Paul used the term translated as “against nature” to communicate clearly that homosexual or lesbian practice is a violation of the natural order as determined by God. The order intended by God includes the function of the sex organs themselves. The deviant exchange of those organs is seen as a use that is against nature. This positions the use of one’s body in its sexual dimensions clearly in view as an instrument of self in relation to God.
Paul further linked homosexuality with humanity’s turning away from the Creator to images of their fellow creatures. The actions of the sinful human being itself have an ironic element—difference is exchanged for sameness. The key correspondence between idolatry on the one hand and homosexual behavior on the other “lies in the fact that both involve turning away from the ‘other’ to the ‘same.’ . . . Humanity should be oriented toward God but turns in on itself (Rom. 1.25). Woman should be oriented toward man, but turns in on itself (Rom. 1.26). Man should be oriented toward woman, but turns in on itself (Rom. 1.27).”17 “The meta‑sin of suppression or exchange then issue in a cascade of sins plural, in physical degradation general (1.24), and in female and male homosexuality (1.26‑27). This then is expanded to the entire sphere of ‘doing what is not fitting’ . . . and to a whole host of different kinds of non‑sexual sin which emerges in the vice list depicting the social chaos of a world in rebellion against God (1.28‑31).”18
While Paul’s description reflects a radically theocentric and gospel view of sin, anthropological perspectives are not entirely absent. In the wake of this exchange, God “gave them up” (Rom. 1:26) to the desires of their hearts/minds (vs. 24). Paul thus engaged psychology—the inner passions linking desires to action. He touched the realm of one’s thinking, feelings, values, desires, attitudes, will and choice—not to mention essential psychological identity of self and personhood with respect to gender. When human beings “exchange” created ordered roles for homosexual intercourse, they embody the spiritual condition of those who have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie.”19 For Paul, this lie includes gender and sexual orientation-related matters of selfhood and identity. There would seem no allowance for one to say, “It is unnatural for me to be in this body.” Standing behind Paul’s assertions are not only the creation order but, the Leviticus sex taboos in “breaking the ‘boundaries’ of biological design and sexual order.”20 Homosexuality breaks the structural boundaries between male and female. It reflects the larger denial of any boundaries of Godless culture with regard to human sexuality as a divinely willed characteristic of creation.
“The reason why Paul gives an extended discussion in Romans 1:18–32 only to the vices of idolatry and same‑sex intercourse is due not just to the particular gravity of these sins but also to the fact that both are classic instances of human beings suppressing the truth about God and about themselves in relation to God accessible in the material structure of Creation still intact in nature.”21 Male‑male intercourse treats another male as though he were not a male. The same would be true with female‑female intercourse in relation to a woman not being treated as a female. With regard to questions of homosexual relations, what people bring to the table, sexually speaking, is essential maleness or femaleness as reflected physically at least in their anatomy. The implication is that what they lack is essential femaleness or maleness with regard to someone of the same sex. It also blurs their sense of identity in relation to God.
Again, it is significant that, like Jesus, Paul used the creation order distinction of “male” and “female” as opposed to generic terms for man and woman. In doing so, he maintained the clear creation gender realities of “male and female” as found in the Genesis narrative and the teachings of Jesus—implying that sexual polarity is an essential constituent of humans, and sexual complementarity was God’s intention.
It is true that issues about transgender are not in the fore here. Nevertheless, the tacit principles and values which the New Testament unfold are relevant.
What We Do With Our Bodies
The New Testament asserts that “sexual intercourse is uniquely expressive of our whole being.”22 “All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body” (1 Cor. 6:18, NIV).
What human beings do with their bodies sexually makes a difference. This is distinctive anthropology in which the body is no mere external expression or instrument of the true person that resides in some inner sense. A human being is a body rather than having a body. Sexual activity embodies the whole person. Human sexuality is embodied sexuality. What one does with one’s sexuality touches his or her entire person. The body cannot be separated from the self or the self from sexual activity. One cannot be conceived without the other. People are not machines. They cannot surgically separate either themselves or their emotions from what they do with their bodies. One cannot live out a worldview that does not match their true nature without negative result.
The implications of this self/body/sex phenomenon assert that there is no essential fragmentation or alienation of one’s body and his or her inner person as appears in secular platonic and psychological views of the human being. According to Paul, essential selfhood cannot be split from human sexuality nor are matters of sexuality mere social construct.
Since one’s body (anatomy and implied gender), sex (what one does with one’s body sexually), and personhood (who one is in relation to self and others with reference to gender) are essentially inseparable; human beings have a more stable platform for defining those realities and for making decisions in their life regarding them.
Their integration and unity provide a wholistic understanding of the human self—in all its sexual dimensions. They affirm the body’s primary and secondary sex characteristics as undeniable gender markers to be taken seriously in gender identity issues. They inform how what one does with his or her body’s sexual dimensions can have profound implications for the person’s emotional, moral, and spiritual well-being. They point to how existential disconnect between being and doing sexually can lead to behaviors that both profoundly disappoint and hurt. They assert no room for a dichotomy between the self/soul and the body with respect to sexuality. They maintain the creation distinction between sexes and challenge notions that people's real selves are uncreated and thus dependent on what they may choose to be. Last but not least, they underscore that how people think with regard to their gender and sex relates directly to both behavior and interior self.
The New Testament vision of the human body is positive. It unfolds a theology of the body, which places the human body in the context of worship and how we can best serve and please God (Rom. 12:1, 2; 1 Cor. 6:19, 20). Corporeal action has moral significance. It is an instrument of activity in both time and space. There can be no human activity that does not involve the body. Whatever life one lives is lived out in his or her body. We are embodied beings. Presenting the body to God as a living holy sacrifice includes everything one would do with, to, and for his or her body. Our body rightly belongs to God alone. Because of that, our body acquires a distinctive value. Our stewardship of the body arises from the obligatory claim of God upon our body. In simplest terms, “My body does not belong to me!” In the whole range of what pertains to the body, we encounter God’s presence and God’s claim on our very selves.
Sexual Desire and Centered Trust
First Corinthians 7 affirms a positive place for sexual intercourse in marriage (1 Cor. 7:2–5). It also appeals to the unmarried and widows to remain single—stay as you are (vss. 17–35; 7–8). Marriage is good. Singleness is also good. Sexuality is placed within marriage in the context of mutual pleasing rather than the suppression of desire or averting the danger of sexual immorality.
Paul’s concern with porneia (1 Cor. 7:2) and with both appropriate and inappropriate sexual relationships in 1 Corinthians 7 follows two chapters in which the theme of sexual wrongdoing is nuanced: incest (5:1–13), adultery (6:9), homosexuality (6:9) and prostitution—where what one does with one’s body touches one’s very interior self (6:12–20). Within the context of marriage, however, sexual intercourse is appropriate, and married people should not be sexually inactive except for periods of prayer (7:2–5).
While Paul here uses generic terms translated as “man” and “woman” rather than the more specific gender-related terms male and female, gender perspectives and differentiation are nevertheless tacit. Human sexuality is expressed in the context of men and women, husband and wife, and to take place within, rather than outside of, marriage. Here Paul grants unprecedented liberty to women and places important moral restriction on men.
For those who are single, Paul is emphatic, yet pastoral—stay as you are (1 Cor. 7:17–35; 7, 8). It is a plea for contentment, trust, and commitment to a life of service with regards to one’s sexuality in the context of the current single condition. Interestingly, the passage appears to take up two of the three descriptive pairs, which appear in Galatians 3:28—Jew nor Greek (here circumcised, uncircumcised) and slave nor free: “Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised” (1 Cor. 7:18, NIV); “were you a slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (vs. 21). In both cases Paul asserts, “Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called” (vs. 24).
The former—being circumcised or becoming uncircumcised—includes radical body modification. While the procedure (one way or another) implies physical and social identity markers, such religious markers were not directly related to the question of gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, or sex change. Nor are they ontological. The later—being a slave or where possible seeking and becoming free—reflects an essential core of the human being in terms of equality and rights and ontology. From the perspective of human being, dignity, status, and rights, matters of slavery and gender overlap. But they do not overlap with respect to sexuality per se, and especially not with matters of sexual orientation, or sex change. Gender is a constant, enslavement not so.
For followers of Christ, circumcision was essentially a non‑issue (vs. 19). Stay as you are! (vs. 20). But slavery, as a dysfunctional social‑cultural phenomenon out of sync with core biblical values, was on an entirely different moral level. Because human equality and freedom were core creation values, experientially, slavery was negotiable, depending on opportunity (vs. 21). Where necessary, practical, or desired, people should stay as they are. They could also seek a change where possible. From the perspective of the gospel, there was no difference between one who is a slave and one who is free (Gal. 3:28). From a person’s own personal experience and perspective, however, there was a significant difference, and it was acceptable that they would desire a change of status with the freedoms it brings.
Exactly why Paul does not include his third descriptive pair “male nor female” here is not entirely clear. But one could conclude that, when it came to biblical values of human sexuality at play in 1 Corinthians 5 to 7, matters of gender (male and female) were neither non-issues nor were they negotiable. With respect to gender and gender differentiation, Paul did not need to say, “Stay as you are” as per the nonissue of circumcision. Nor did he need to say, “Don’t worry about it, but if you are able to make a change, do so” as per the evidently negotiable status of slavery. The issue was tacit. “It goes without saying.” Male and female gender difference and complementarity were biblical ontological realities—essentially unchangeable.
It must be noted that contemporary concerns re-garding gender identity, sexual orientation, and sex change are not even envisioned here—nor can they be, except from the text’s tacit context of male and female. Again, there was no need for Paul to say with respect to “male and female,” “stay as you are” (or change). For circumcision, yes! For slavery, yes! For the married, yes! For the one married to an unbeliever, yes! For the single person—virgin or widow, yes! But male and female, absolutely not! Male/female gender was an unchangeable reality.
Paul’s reference to sexual desire here is informative. Outside of marriage and before marriage, men and women may experience sexual desire. This includes such strong sexual emotion that its intensity is likened to burning (1 Cor. 7:9). The Greek word translated “burn” expresses intense sexual desire. The intensity of this sexual desire can be so great as to cause people to be upset or filled with great concern and anxiety with regard to their sexual feelings, desires, and drives. This is not necessarily carnal or evil in itself.
The text’s implied angst and distress opens a window into the intense existential struggles one can experience with regard to one’s inner sexual desires and emotions—whatever they might be. We can only imagine what these desires might be or what the stress might actually include within a person emotionally and psychologically. The intensity depicted goes beyond mere physical sexual release (in terms of orgasm or ejaculation). It nuances profound inner realities regarding human sexuality (its fantasies, drives, feelings, orientations, identity, fears, guilt, shame, etc.), which can be very relevant in our contemporary world. Angst is evidenced because this intensity of desire may not be fully understood existentially, may not find lessening, release, or end. Or the consequences of acting on them might be devastating. There might be confusion as to what God’s will might be.
While Paul never labels this experience sin, he nevertheless warns that allowing it to take control, instead of taking control of it, leads to sinful behavior. High value is thus placed on self‑control (1 Cor. 7:5, 9). Yet at the same time, the text affirms practical choices—marriage rather than singleness. Two explicit Greek words provide vivid characterization of this envisioned self‑ control. The first is translated as a failure to control oneself. The focus of this is on self‑indulgence (vs. 5). The second is translated as to exercise complete control over one’s desires and actions. The focus here is on holding oneself in. It means commanding one’s inner desires so they do not determine either one’s being or one’s doing (vs. 9). They are rich words in terms of a person’s moral orientation, moral agency, and personal ethics.
When placed against the aforementioned intensity of sexual desire—especially in terms of its inner emotional and psychological dynamics—the moral force of self- control takes on incredible existential and ethical implications. Self‑control holds in check the deep and powerful realities of sexual desire and struggle, which burn within the human psyche and passionately push toward expression. Self‑control chooses not to allow one’s self the luxury of indulging his or her self in ways that would erode the moral self in either character or life—no matter the tumult of sexual desire or emotion.
The implications for transgender desires and struggle are profound. They provide a vivid reminder of the difficulty, which human sexuality so oft experiences—existentially and psychologically—within the context of fallen human nature and our less than perfect world.
Elsewhere Paul asserts this self‑control as a positive behavior in contrast to fornication, impurity, and debauchery (Gal. 5:16–24). In Galatians, he asserts an internal rivalry—in which the heart is literally at war with itself with respect to personal moral bearing and action. It is a rivalry that calls for clarity of moral purpose and choice. It is something that only the Holy Spirit can subdue (vss. 16, 17). Ultimately such self‑control is possible only as a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work within one’s inner life (vs. 23).
As with Galatians, the Holy Spirit’s role in relation to sexual desire and control is very much in view in 1 Corinthians 5 to 7: “Such were some of you [fornicators, adulterers, effeminate, homosexuals]. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11); “Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (vss. 18, 19, NASB). This earlier assertion of immorality as “sinning against one’s own body” heightens the focus in chapter 7 on the internal struggle that sexual desire can create. It is a reminder that each person is in need of a moral power outside of himself or herself when it comes to sexual matters in life.
The foregoing sexual ethics is not merely about moral principles, values, virtues, rules, and motives, or even personal moral agency. It is about centering God’s purposes and will as the ultimate referent and motive regarding one’s sexual life (internal and external, physical and emotional): “For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (vs. 20, NASB); “as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk” (1 Cor. 7:17, NASB); “let each one remain with God in that state in which he was called” (vs. 24); “He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world—how he may please his wife” (vss. 32, 33).
Paul does not provide a clear “thus says the Lord” for every aspect of sexual ethics and counsel that he unfolds in 1 Corinthians 7, but there is a clear theocentric focus throughout in which each person is invited to remember God’s ways, purposes, and calling for his or her own life. This centering on God includes a contentment with the state in which one finds him- or her self. It asserts that pleasing God and following His way can truly be a centering motive with regards to one’s sexuality. It is the only path toward balance and peace with regard to one’s sexual desires and questions. It is remindful of the fact that one need not be alone in the practical yet so often stress‑related reality of wending one’s way personally through issues of sexuality. God is on the horizon and alongside.
The transitory nature of human existence—including sex—in relation to contemporary dangerous times and in relation to the immanent eschaton provide a realistic framework for this contentment and trust. While matters of sexuality are in no way belittled or diminished, Paul nevertheless held out a vision of service for others and an honoring of God that can outweigh one’s own personal sexual desires, needs, or challenges. One’s sexuality can be trustfully stewarded within the already‑not‑yet.
Sex, Self, and Sanctification
Thessalonian believers living in the first-century culture of immorality—with its confusion of human sexuality and identity—were reminded of the organic link between their sexuality and their experience of God’s gracious gift and work of holiness: “This is—the will of God—your holiness: that you—abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you—know how—to control his [her, your] body; in holiness and honor, not in passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that none—transgress [exploit]—his or her brother [or sister] in this matter. . . . The calling of God is not to impurity but to the most thorough holiness, . . . It is not for nothing that the Spirit God gives us is called the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 4:3–6, 7, 8, my paraphrase).
The injunction to holiness concentrates on the matter of sexual morality. This is not the whole of holiness, but it is an important aspect of it. It’s a complex passage. There are five clauses whose meanings and relationships to one another are often difficult to disentangle, but the point is clear—holiness and sexuality connect in a profound spiritual/moral dynamic and way of life that should honor God.
The manner in which the theme of holiness is developed here is intriguing. Although the concern of the entire passage is for the will of God, the specific theme of verses 3 to 8 is a call to experience divine holiness. A concern for holiness (sanctification) brackets the specific injunctions (vss. 3, 8). The literary inclusio opens with the divine will for holiness and closes with the Holy Spirit, who alone enables such a calling. The repetition of the holiness word group throughout is evident in the Greek.
While sexual immorality occurs here only once, the “holiness” word group occurs four times. Yet the sexual overtones dominate, “and so the sanctification of one’s sexual self deserves to be highlighted.”23 Various aspects of sexual activity are presented in these verses. Verse 3 presents a broad general statement linking holiness with sexual integrity. Verses 4 and 5 address sexuality in relation to oneself. This contrasts holiness and honor with “passions of lust.” Verse 6 looks outside the self and warns against immorality as an offense against both God and others. Finally, verse 8 places human sexuality in all its facets and expressions in relation to the work of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. The Holy Spirit’s continued presence and transforming power is dependent on one’s choices and behavior with regard to their sexuality. Sexual permissiveness leads ultimately to rejecting the Holy Spirit’s voice to one’s soul. Spiritual discernment and sexual purity appear to go together.
If the human body in its sexual dimensions is indeed connoted here, then one’s physical sexual self (i.e., gender), together with one’s genitalia (anatomical sex) are included together with identity and desire. The envisioned self‑control over one’s “passions of desire” is in relation to these physical sexual dimensions, compelling sexual emotion/desire, and gender identity realities (vss. 4, 5). Christians are to act with holiness and honor with respect to both the sexual dimensions of their body and their inner selves as sexual beings.
This “holiness and honor” includes three critical points of reference: (1) one’s physical and emotional self as a sexual being (1 Thess. 4:4); (2) other human beings who may be sexual partners or exploited sexual objects (vs. 6); and (3), God who has created each one as a sexual being with entwined physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual dimensions (vss. 3, 7, 8). There is no severing of body from one’s sexual self and/or his or her desires. The complete sexual self is in view in relation to what holiness and honor before God entail.
This profound organic relationship between human sexuality (with its entwined physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual dimensions) and divine holiness provides one of the clearest New Testament references to the breadth of which human sexuality is included in God’s redemptive purpose of restoring men and women into His image. It is significant that the biblical concept of the holy first appears in relation to Creation during which God created human sexuality with all its profound dimensions when He made male and female in His image. The sustained biblical appeal for human beings to be holy as God is holy (Lev. 11:44, 47; 1 Peter 1:15, 16) repeatedly includes the phenomena and expressions of human sexuality (Lev. 18:1–19:2; 1 Peter 1:14, 15; 1 Thess. 4:1–8).
If biblical correctives and counsel regarding the confusion of human sexuality are ultimately placed in the context of being holy as God is holy, it can be assumed that contemporary transgender issues can be rightly placed there as well. In the final analysis, the reference point toward wholeness in gender dissonance and the quest for gender change lies in God’s original and ultimate purpose as well as our restoration to His holy image with respect to human sexuality and our core identity as a person in God’s image.
If also, as the passage under discussion here seems to imply, both the anatomical and inner dimensions of the human sexuality are in view with regard to moral choice and holiness, then human beings (transgender included) do have real freedom of control over their body. They have freedom to do with their body whatever they choose in response to their experiences of strong inner sexual desire, emotion, and perception of identity (for self and the other). And yet, “holiness and honor” in relation to one’s sexual self, others’ sexuality, as well as God’s holy image and purpose remain the truest backdrop and norm for how human beings are to both view their body and what they are to do with its physical gender markers. Anything else is to follow the values and norms of contemporary culture that does not know God (1 Thess. 4:5).
These insights place human sexuality and questions of gender identification against a normative biblical moral frame of reference. They offer a vivid reminder that “all our experience of sexual life is conditioned by the fall.”24 God’s gracious invitation to holiness is the truest pathway to sexual and gender wholeness. The text’s reference to “not in passion of desire” (1 Thess. 4:5) need not be read as totally carnal, but can include one’s genuine human struggle with his or her sexuality—however, it compels from deep within. It can include the deep emotional distress evidenced in transgender people who honestly, yet painfully, grapple with their personal gender identity—trying to find or be their true self, and still honor God.
The holiness toward which this passage directs human sexuality, choices, and behavior is no mere philosophical or abstract concept. It is directed toward a person—God, who alone is holy and who graciously extends the very power of His holy being and nature to us in the person of the Holy Spirit and in the merits of His Son’s redemptive work.
In the beginning, God assigned male and female with respective sex anatomy. Neither Adam nor Eve chose their gender and its implied roles. There was completeness, wholeness. There was equilibrium of body in its sexual dimensions together with a sense and experience of maleness or femaleness. What now when, because of our fallen condition, there is such an experience as gender dissonance? Do we change our body to match our inner sense of self? Or do we change our inner self to match our body? How do we faithfully live between the already and not yet?
The New Testament unfolds a theology of the human body, which places it in the context of worship and how we can best serve and please God (Rom. 12:1, 2; 1 Cor. 6:19, 20). Corporeal action has moral significance. Our embodied selves are instruments of activity in both time and space. Presenting our body to God as a living holy sacrifice touches the holy in profound ways. In the whole range of what pertains to the body, we encounter God’s holy presence and God’s call to be like Him in the world—holy.
New Testament moral vision of human sexuality offers remarkable insight into the transgender experience and the complexity of issues it raises. Though largely indirect and tacit, it nevertheless fundamentally challenges contemporary transgender anthropology, which sharply severs gender identity from biological sex and offers an existentialist view of human being free to choose one’s own gender identity. It offers a biblically informed platform for discussion by outlining as normative the New Testament’s wholistic human anthropology and sexuality. From this vantage point, one can view, understand, and balance the intersect between the creation ideal, the Fall, the body of medicine and genome research, a transgender person’s unique crisis experience and longings, and the redeeming grace, purpose, and power of God.
The New Testament witness unfolds a wholistic view of human sexuality in which personhood, the body, sex, and gender issues are intertwined variables—independent, but never separable. It affirms the Genesis creation narrative, which unfolds an ontological gender‑based sexual nature of male and female and in which gender serves as the basic identity foundation for all humankind together with corresponding anatomic gender markers. This male/ female differential essentially upholds the entire human person rather than merely locating one’s identity in one’s sexual organs or functions. One cannot separate the two—body or being, whether male or female. We are embodied sexual beings. Gender is neither feeling nor relative nor matter of choice. It is a profound integrative constant in human identity. Yet, our fallen experience has profoundly blurred this reality, causing much confusion, internal crisis, painful choices, and hurt.
Gender serves as the basic identity foundation for all humankind. It is among the first elements of self‑ knowledge. While, together with race and biological family, it is one of the three major factors of individual, personal identification, it nevertheless “stands as the most important factor for personal identity.”25 It affects social, ethical, and spiritual behavior patterns. This knowledge encompasses an internal sense of self, and, often, a preference for external behaviors in keeping with the person's inner orienting gender identity. This is why a gender identity crisis is the most severe form of identity crisis known to humans. It was never meant to be so. The very angst transgender people experience reflects the raw reality of our brokenness.
At the same time, the New Testament gives promise of a balanced and redemptive understanding of the independent, yet intertwined variables of human sexuality—personhood, the body, sex, gender issues, moral orientation, and spirituality. Surprisingly, it facilitates examination of these individual facets in ways that demonstrate both the complexity of human sexuality (as evidenced in contemporary professional research) and a sensitive but clear grasp of the interior struggles human beings often experience with regard to gender and sex. It engages most if not all of the same contemporary issues, but it does so from an entirely different anthropological paradigm. As such there is both similarity and divergence of understanding and conclusions regarding various issues of gender and human identity in particular.
Since the New Testament affirms that one’s body (anatomy and implied gender), sex (what one does with one’s body sexually), and personhood (who one is in relation to and others with reference to gender) are essentially inseparable; human beings have a reliable, coherent, and normative platform for defining those realities and for making decisions in their lives regarding them. This reality of their integration and unity provides a wholistic understanding of the human self—in all its sexual dimensions.
The New Testament’s wholistic anthropology affirms the body’s primary and secondary sex characteristics as undeniable gender markers as intended by God at creation and to be taken seriously in gender identity issues.
It informs us how what one either chooses or does with his or her body’s sexual dimensions can have profound implications for one’s emotional, moral, and spiritual well-being.
It warns against any existential disconnect between being and doing sexually, which can lead to behaviors that both profoundly disappoint and hurt emotionally and spiritually.
It asserts that there is no room for a dichotomy between the self/soul and the body with respect to sexuality.
It maintains the creation distinction between sexes and challenges notions that one’s real self is uncreated and thus dependent on what one may choose to be.
It underscores that how one thinks with regard to one’s gender and sex relates directly to both behavior and interior self.
It highlights gender as among the first elements of self‑knowledge and as the most important factor for personal identity: an identity that affects social, ethical, and spiritual behavior patterns.
It reveals how gender serves as the basic identity foundation for all humankind. One can understand how a gender identity crisis is the most severe form of identity crisis known to humanity and empathize more with transgender persons in their journey.
On the other hand, the biblical witness of human sexuality allows for the phenomena of painful gender dissonance because of fallen nature. It rests on the Scriptures’ overarching creation, Fall, redemption, and final consummation narrative. Within this framework, gender dissonance is viewed as a result of living in a fallen world in which experiencing it seems to be a non-moral reality to be related to with compassion.
Within this creation-to-consummation narrative, the New Testament manifests a profound sensitivity toward those whose life may be filled with ambiguity, guilt, shame, loneliness, anxiety, fear, and hopelessness, because of sex- or gender-related experience. It offers the hope of finding a new wholeness in Christ while living in the ambiguity of the already‑not‑yet of redemption and final consummation. It gives assurance of divine empowerment through the Holy Spirit as one relates to one’s sexuality and God’s gracious invitation to wholeness and holiness. Its vision of human sexuality is reflected in divine exhortation, compassion, and redemptive purpose. Individuals are invited to reflect on God’s original plan. They are not free to do or be whatever they may feel with respect to their body temple (“You are not your own” [1 Cor. 6:19]). They are slaves of the Lord Jesus Christ in every aspect of their being. They are invited to wait on God while they are offered divine compassion and grace in the interim. They are invited to experience God’s call to be holy like Himself, and to experience such through the power of the Living Christ within.
Biblical anthropology and the Creation‑consummation narrative can help orient transgender people to the biblical ideal as they make difficult choices regarding their experience and options toward finding wholeness. But these two perspectives can also nurture compassionate care and understanding in the body of Christ as God’s people come alongside transgender people as a truly redemptive community.
Larry L. Lichtenwalter, PhD, is President, Dean of Philosophy and Theology, and Director of the Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies at Middle East University in Beirut, Lebanon.
NOTES AND REFERENCES